Rickhoto victory: breakthrough for S. African blacks?

He could not find the words in English, but his smile said it all. To his delight, Meholo Tom Rickhoto, a South African black, has been allowed to take up residence in the city of Germiston, east of Johannesburg.

Perhaps more significant in the long term, the court decision in Mr. Rickhoto's favor has, unless later reversed by a higher court, weakened South Africa's system of "influx control," which strictly regulates the number of blacks allowed into the cities.

Mr. Rickhoto is one of South Africa's sizable population of "contract" workers who are permitted to work outside their "homelands" temporarily under contract to employers.

The system typically involves a one-year contract that allows a black worker to live in a hostel or dormitory near his job site; while leaving his family at home in a rural homeland. Mr. Rickhoto's family lives in the Gazankulu homeland , some six hours by train from where he works.

However, a provision of South Africa's Urban Areas Consolidation Act of 1945 -- which basically allows blacks to remain in prescribed urban areas for only 72 hours -- permits urban residence by a black person who can prove he has worked continuously for one employer for at least 10 years.

Mr. Rickhoto claimed this exemption, but the governmental agency requested to stamp his reference book contested his claim. The government's argument was that by signing an annual contract, Mr. Rickhoto's employment with a Germiston engineering firm since 1970 had not been continuous. Instead, it had been severed and reactivated each year, according to the government.

Justice O'Donovan of the Witwatersrand local division of the Supreme Court of South Africa denied this interpretation. "The question is one of substance, and not of form," he wrote in his decision.

The Legal Resources Center, a public-interest law firm, claimed the decision would set a binding legal precedent for the Transvaal Province of South Africa, and would likely influence administrative and court decisions on similar cases throughout the country. A spokesman for the East Rand Administration Board, the government agency in the case, said it is likely the decision will be appealed.

The precise number of black migrant workers who might qualify for urban residence under this court interpretation of the law is not known. But both the lawyers representing Mr. Rickhoto and the government labeled it a "test case."

"It will affect thousands," predicts Sheena Duncan of the Black Sash, a women's organization that offers blacks information on influx control and pass laws.

The ramifications for the government could be significant. Permitting more blacks to take up urban residence will worsen an already acute black housing shortage.Government figures show the need for some 159,000 units to meet current black housing demand.

But for Mr. Rickhoto, the ability to place his name on a government waiting list for housing is something of a luxury. As an urban resident, he will eventually be able to move from his single dormitory room to housing that will accommodate his wife and four children. The desire to keep his family intact throughout the year was the main reason for the court case, according to Mr. Rickhoto.

In addition to new housing opportunity, the decision offers Mr. Rickhoto new job mobility. As a migrant worker he could not stay in the city unless under contract to an employer. Now he is free to look for work in the city.

It is this aspect of the court decision that may be most meaningful to blacks in search of a better livelihood. With the ability to shop around for a job, an urban black can seek higher wages and better opportunity, which tends to raise the pay scales for all city blacks.

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