Christmas has come early for the Govender family of South Africa. Their ''gift'' is being celebrated by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other families in similar trying circumstances.
For Gladys Govender and her three children, December loomed darkly as the month in which they had been ordered to vacate their home. Their crime: being Indian and living in an area classified for whites only.
But in the nick of time, an important court ruling allowed them to stay put. The ruling has greatly reduced the threat of eviction hanging over many other South African families also living illegally in white areas.
In a decision binding on magistrates throughout South Africa, the Pretoria Supreme Court ruled late last month that people must not be automatically evicted from their homes for falling afoul of this country's housing segregation laws.
Routine eviction has been the practice up to now. But under the new ruling, before families can be ejected, courts must consider separately whether there is legal housing available.
Given the acute housing shortage for Indians and Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent), most legal observers reckon the government will find it difficult , if not impossible, to order ''nonwhite'' families out of their homes without offering alternative shelter. (Blacks will not be much affected by the court decision, since they are restricted in where they live by a host of laws not under consideration in this case.)
In South Africa residential areas are racially segregated for whites, blacks, Indians, and Coloreds. The net effect of the policy, embodied in the Group Areas Act, is discriminatory for nonwhites, since they are crowded into the least desirable areas. Many are forced to live ''illegally'' in white areas for lack of any alternative.
Such were the circumstances that brought Mrs. Govender to the poor, white neighborhood of Mayfair on the edge of Johannesburg about three years ago. Until then, she had lived in a one-room shack in a nearby residential area, all the time looking for better housing. No legal accommodation was available in the areas set aside for Indians. When the modest, two-bedroom home in Mayfair became vacant, she snapped it up.
Those representing Mrs. Govender in her legal battle say there were no complaints from her white neighbors. But somehow the special branch of police inspectors, whose job it is to make sure residential areas remain racially ''pure,'' found out about the Indian woman pensioner who was breaking the law. About nine months ago, Mrs. Govender was convicted of violating the Group Areas Act. She was given until the end of this month to get out of her Mayfair home.
But there was still no alternative housing in the legal Indian areas. So Mrs. Govender, with the help of the Action Committee to Stop Evictions (ACTSTOP), appealed the conviction.
''We see this as a very genuine victory,'' said ACTSTOP chairman Cassim Saloojee. ''It doesn't create an ideal situation, but it helps us fight the government practice of just throwing people out of their homes.''
ACTSTOP favors the scrapping of the Group Areas Act. But in a number of court cases, it has argued that law does not require that violators be automatically evicted.
The Pretoria Supreme Court ruling was the first to uphold this interpretation. Noting the unfairness of evicting families without considering whether other housing was available, the judge said, ''The sooner this practice stops, the better.''
Critics of the Group Areas Act maintain it is among South Africa's most discriminatory laws. It effectively relegates most nonwhites to ghetto living and is one of the greatest irritants to race relations in South Africa, they say.
The law also requires determinations on a person's racial classification, leading to humiliating court sessions where judges assess individuals' physical features to determine their race.
Some observers see a general softening of racial attitudes when it comes to Coloreds and Indians, however. The court ruling is one reflection of this. Another aspect is a general reduction in the number of arrests and convictions for violation of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act against members of differing races who intermarry.
In one case, a white man, Ian Whiteley, and his Indian wife, Sherrin, were permitted to return to South Africa after they pleaded with the government for permission to do so. The couple courted in South Africa, married outside the country, and began to raise a family abroad. They now live in an Indian residential area of Pietersburg.
The Black Sash human-rights organization estimates that a half million people have been relocated under the Group Areas Act.
Despite the housing shortage for nonwhites, the Nationalist government recently reaffirmed that the Group Areas Act remains one of its ''nonnegotiable'' policies.