How one black man forced South Africa to change a race law

Can blacks bring change to South Africa by working within the ''system''? An upsurge of guerrilla violence here begs the question. The case of an unassuming black man who makes nuts and bolts for a living may provide an answer.

The man is Meholo Tom Rikhoto. He just won a landmark court case challenging the influx control system used by the white South African government to keep the number of blacks in the cities to a minimum.

The case was important enough. But its timing - coming on the heels of the worst incident of sabotage in this country's history and at a time when the credibility of the government's so-called ''reform'' program is under its sharpest attack - has elevated the Rikhoto case to extraordinary significance.

It is seen by many in South Africa as nothing less than a crucial test of whether there remains for blacks an alternative to violence. It provides an opportunity for the government to demonstrate that peaceful, orderly change is possible, a number of observers say.

One demonstration of the importance attached to the case is the number of groups rallying behind it. Black trade unions, employer organizations, the official opposition, and the Black Sash human rights group have all applauded Rikhoto's victory.

Much of the support is simply based on delight in seeing the influx control system weakened. But for the dwindling number of ''moderates'' in the South African political spectrum, Rikhoto offers a rare glimmer of hope that significant battles can be won against the government's policy of apartheid through legal means. The government appears to be planning to limit the effects of the Rikhoto ruling although exactly how and to what extent remains unclear.

Rikhoto spent several years patiently fighting the influx controls system through the courts. The net effect of the influx restrictions on Rikhoto was that for 13 years he lived and worked near Johannesburg separated from his wife and four children. They had to live many hours away in a tribal ''homeland'' because a government regulation prohibited them from living in the city.

Rikhoto claimed that after a decade of working for one employer, he was entitled under law to the status of a permanent urban resident, meaning he could bring his family to the city.

The government did not agree, claiming it was impossible for him to meet the 10-year continuous work criteria of the law, since regulations required all black migrant workers to renew their contracts annually. There could be no 10 years of continuous work when contracts lasted only 12 months, the government said.

The government fought Rikhoto all the way to South Africa's highest court, but lost. The ruling National Party attaches great importance to influx control, because if black urbanization is let to run its natural course, it will become increasingly difficult to enforce apartheid (separation of the races).

The Rikhoto case has already demonstrated the important role the judiciary here can play in ameliorating for blacks the effects of apartheid. The question now is whether the government will bow to the judiciary or simply manipulate the law to its own end.

Some of the boards that grant permanent residence rights have begun to act in accord with the Rikhoto decision. Others have ignored it.

Attaching broad significance to the Rikhoto decision was the Sowetan, a major black newspaper. In an editorial, it said: ''The time has at last come for the government to prove its sincerity in the move towards reform. . . .''

Also urging the government to abide by the decision was the president of the Federated Chamber of Industries, Rod Ironside. He said the FCI, representing the nation's industries, believed that ''if the law and the courts mean anything, then obviously we would expect this judgment to be followed through.''

There are signs some independent black trade unions may take up the Rikhoto case as a cause of importance to union members. A statement by the black Council of Unions of South Africa warned that if the government ''tries to ignore the decision, and tries to push legislation through which attempts to regain control over urban black workers, it will force the labor movement to take action.''

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