Meholo Tom Rikhoto takes on S. African race law

Meholo Tom Rikhoto would like to call the city he has worked in for over 10 years home. But as a South African black, Mr. Rikhoto needs special qualifications to become a permanent resident of Germiston, an urban area east of Johannesburg.

Those qualifications are being debated in a court case here that could affect thousands of blacks in South Africa who work in urban areas but who are considered migrant laborers from their rural homelands. The East Rand Administration Board, the government agency contesting Mr. Rikhoto's claim to permanent residency in Germiston, has labeled this a "test case" and other legal experts concur its implications could be significant for urban blacks throughout South Africa.

Mr. Rikhoto began work as a machinist in Germiston in 1970. Yet under South African law he remains a migrant worker from the homeland Gazankulu where he was born.

The distinction is more than a mere technicality. As a visiting laborer, Mr. Rikhoto cannot bring his wife and four children to live with him in Germiston. Also, he is not free to change jobs in the city. Mr. Rikhoto is admitted to Germiston each year on a one-year contract with his employer. A six-hour train ride each year takes Mr. Rikhoto back to his homeland to visit his family and attempts to renew his labor contract.

Indeed, it is this annual trek back to the homeland to sign a new contract that the ERAB argues disqualifies Mr. Rikhoto for permanent status in Germiston.

Under South Africa's Black (urban areas) Consolidation Act of 1945, no black is allowed to remain in prescribed urban areas for more than 72 hours without meeting special qualifications. This law is one of many that comprise this country's elaborate influx control system under which the movement and employment of blacks is stringently regulated.

One of the exceptions to the 72-hour rule is for blacks who have "worked continuously" for one employer for a period of not less than 10 years. Mr. Rikhoto and the public-interest law firm that is representing him claim this requirement has been met.

However, the ERAB argues that 10 years of work for the same employer does not necessarily represent continuous employment. Counsel for the administrative agency contended in court that regulations passed in 1968 that require black workers to sign new contracts annually were specifically designed to prevent workers from qualifying under the 10-year requirement as permanent residents of cities.

The argument is that 10 years of employment under one-year-long contracts is not the same as working continuously for an employer for a decade.

Arthur Chaskelson, the attorney representing Mr. Rikhoto, told the court that if the regulation requiring blacks to enter into one-year contracts with their employers was designed to prevent them from qualifying to remain in the cities, it was an improper use of regulatory authority and does not alter the requirements set out by the Urban Areas Act.

South African blacks gain employment in urban areas by either company recruitment or the labor bureau system, where local officials match employer requests with job-seekers. Work contracts are ordinarily signed for a period of one year. Blacks may not come to the city to seek employment, but must have a contract and permission of their labor bureau to be in an urban area.

This is what makes qualifying as a permanent resident under the Urban Areas Act so valuable. "The cities are places where opportunities for employment exist and they act as magnets to unemployed persons in rural areas," noted Mr. Chaskelson in a report on South Africa's influx control laws prepared earlier this year. By qualifying as a permanent resident of a city, a black South African is in a better position to take advantage of these economic opportunities.

The legal resources center says this is the first court test of the 10-year requirement of the Urban Areas Act. The ERAB has drawn attention to the case saying there are "thousands" of blacks with work records similar to Mr. Rikhoto who might qualify as permanent residents of urban areas if the court allows the applicant's request.

A decision by the Witwatersrand local division of the Supreme Court of South Africa is expected shortly.

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