Johannesburg — Meholo Tom Rikhoto started his battle against one of South Africa's race laws from the conviction that, although he was black, he was still entitled to a normal family life that included his wife and four children.
The battle has ended with the highest court in South Africa agreeing. In so doing, the court has struck a blow at one of the legal cornerstones of this country's stringent policy of influx control.
The South African appeals court has denied the legitimacy of a government regulation that made it impossible for many black workers in the cities to gain permanent residence rights. Such rights are needed before these workers can have their families join them in the urban areas, or before they are free to change jobs in the cities.
The court decision granting Mr. Rikhoto urban rights will open the doors for ''tens of thousands'' of urban black workers to gain permanent residence rights, analysts say.
The decision will also test the sincerity of the government's reformist rhetoric. The government recently has said that it recognizes the permanence of the urban black and is searching for ways to grant more rights to those blacks.
South Africa operates an elaborate system of influx control that over the years has permitted only that number of blacks into the so-called ''white'' urban areas that are needed for economic reasons. The Black (urban areas) Consolidation Act of 1945 prohibits any black from remaining in prescribed urban areas longer than 72 hours unless they meet special qualifications.
One such qualification is to have ''worked continuously'' for one employer for not less than 10 years. However, in 1968 the government issued a regulation apparently aimed in part at making it impossible for blacks to meet this qualification.
The regulation required black workers to sign new contracts annually. To do this, workers must return to the tribal ''homeland'' to which the white government has assigned them. It is only in their homelands that they may be ''rehired'' by their employers, even when both employee and employer have no reason to break the existing contract.
This regulation allowed the government to deny permanent urban residence rights to blacks who had worked for one employer for at least 10 years. The government argued the annual renewal of the work contract meant the work was not continuous.
Rikhoto, a machine operator in Germiston - an industrial town near Johannesburg - had worked for one employer since 1970. Both he and his employer considered his work continuous, despite the annual rehiring ritual they were forced to go through by the government's regulation.
The Legal Resources Center, a public interest law firm, argued on behalf of Rikhoto that the government's regulation was an improper attempt to circumvent the intent of the law. In late 1981 a lower court upheld Rikhoto's right to permanent urban residence rights.
Since that ruling in 1981, the government has continued to deny permanent urban residence rights to blacks in circumstances similar to Rikhoto's, according to legal experts involved in the Rikhoto case. The government said it was awaiting the outcome of its appeal of the decision to the highest court. The appeals court now has set a clear legal precedent requiring government compliance, say legal analysts.
However, it remains to be seen how the government will respond. There is considerable right-wing political pressure on the government to act tougher on influx control. Last year at a provincial congress of the ruling National Party, government minister Dr. Piet Koornhof threatened to introduce legislation overriding the Rikhoto decision.
At the same time, the Nationalist government is trying to convince critics to the left that it is serious about granting more rights to urban blacks, long considered temporary ''sojourners'' by the government.
Nationalist ideology once held that urban blacks would eventually leave the cities and return to the tribal homelands. The present government recognizes this will never happen, but has yet to provide a blueprint of how the fast-growing urban black population will be accommodated in political terms.
For Rikhoto, the decision means the beginning of a family life taken for granted by whites in this country. For over 10 years, Rikhoto has had to take a six-hour train ride to be with his family. Now, they can live together.