One of the legal linchpins of apartheid -- South Africa's system of racial discrimination -- has been sheared by a court decision. The South African appeal court has thrown into question the process of issuing residential permits for black people. The government here has used those permits to keep black families from living together near "white" cities.
The permit system ostensibly was introduced to regulate the supply of black labor in urban areas, but critics have often charged that the government withheld permits in order to keep the urban black-white ratio at levels considered "safe" by the ruling white minority here.
The permit system is but one part of a morass of restrictive, discriminatory measures -- known collectively as the "pas laws" -- that give the government control over almost every facet of the lives of black people.
The court decision is seen as reinforcing black family life in South Africa by limiting the government's ability to separate families arbitrarily -- one of the most socially destructive aspects of apartheid.
The judgment was hailed by Sheens Duncan, an official of the Black Sash women's organization, as "the most exciting news we've ever had. It could affect literally scores of thousands of people."
The ruling may well put an end to the uniquely South African "offense" of husbans, wives, and children living together. It came about as a result of the eviction of a black woman, Nonceba Komani, from the black township of Gugulethu, just outside Cape Town. In 1974, Mrs. Komani was granted government permission to enter the township and live with her husband. But some nine months later she was ordered to leave.
Her husband, Willie Komani -- under South African law, his wife's legal guardian -- filed suit with the help of the Legal Resources Center (a public interest law firm that is largely supported by American Foundations). The suit asked the Bantu Affairs Administration Board, the government agency that controls black townships, to concede that a 1945 law gave Mrs. Komani the right to reside in the area.
The law allows "the wife, unmarried daughter, or son under 18 years of age of a native" to remain in an urban area provided they "ordinarily resided" with a "native" who had been born in the urban area or had been continously employed there for up to 15 years.
The South African government, however, took upon itself the right the determine who can "ordinarily reside" in a township through the issuance of permits. In many areas of South Africa, nighttime police raids to inspect these permits and enforce other so-called pass laws are a common feature of township life.
Anyone not in possession of a permit can be arrested, given a pro forma trial , and deported to one of the country's rural tribal reserves.
Consequently, attainment of the requisite permit -- known as "Section 10 rights" because the requirements are from the 10th section of the Bantu (Urban Areas) Amendment Act -- are a coveted goal. And The South African government keeps a bureaucracy of white civil servants busy parcelling out these permits (or, more frequently, inexplicably denying them) to black people.
The court ruled, however, that the residential permits are an additional restriction on some black people that go beyond the intent of the 1945 legislation.
Some legal analysts were stunned by the scope of the appeal court verdict, which appears to throw into question many provisions of the residential permit system that were not at issue in the Komani case.
"It really marks a change in direction on the part of the court," says one well-placed legal observer.
The ruling does not, however, alter one of the fundamental ground rules of apartheid, namely, that South African cities "belong" to whites. But it does, according to some legal experts, imply that at least some blacks have a right to remain in those cities.
The amendment can,of course, invoke new regulations, or the all-white South African Parliament could pass new legislation that would counteract the court's decision. The pressure from some right-wing whites to restrict the movement of black people into the cities is likely to be formidable.
But so will the pressure -- both domestic and international -- to leave the judgment standing.
"Whatever they do," says one expert, "the ruling will have helped a great many people immediately."