Mehlolo Tom Rikhoto: The man who only wanted a chance

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005In South Africa, the words “Section 10 Rights” mean so much. Sometimes Section 10 Rights can mean everything – like staying alive.

A black person with Section 10 Rights can stay in the cities. They can work or look for a job. And some people with Section 10 Rights can even stay in the cities – and have their families with them. Now these people are really lucky!

But most black people in South Africa aren’t that lucky. Most black people in South Africa don’t have Section 10 Rights. These are the people who live outside the cities. These are the people who live in the ‘homelands’ and on white farms.

The people in the ‘homelands’ are suffering. They are crowded together. They don’t have land to grow enough food. And very few find jobs because jobs are so scarce in the homelands.

But worst of all, these people are dying. They are dying from hunger and sickness. The young children suffer the most.

These people only have one chance. They must leave their families behind and go to work in the cities. The cities are their only hope.

But the people can’t just go to the cities. They must first go to the labour office or the labour bureau. If they are lucky, they will get a contract to work in the city. (Thousands of black people can’t ever work in the cities. They have ‘farm worker’ stamped in their pass books. They can only work on farms. Farm workers also suffer great hardship. They get very low wages. And farmers often treat them badly).

Most contract workers live in crowded hostels when they come to the cities. Some stay in crowded houses on a lodger’s permit. And these people must stay in their jobs ­ because they can’t leave their jobs and find another one. If they leave or if they are fired, they must go back home. And they must wait for another contract.

Contract workers only see their families for a few weeks each year. They see their families when they go home every year to get new contracts.

Some contract workers have got Section 10 Rights after a long time. They got Section 10 Rights after they worked for the same company for 10 years in the same town. Or if they worked for different companies for 15 years in the same town. But in 1968 the government stopped all contract workers from getting Section 10 Rights. They said contract workers start their jobs again after they get new contracts – even if they stay in the same job. So a contract worker could not say he worked in the same job for 10 years. Or for different companies for 15 years. Every time a contract worker got a new contract, that contract worker started a new job.

This new law hurt many people. Thousands of black people in South Africa knew they would never get Section 10 Rights. And then along came Mr Mehlolo Tom Rikhoto.

PART TWO

Mehlolo Tom Rikhoto was born in a ‘homeland’ called Gazankulu 35 years ago. He left school in standard four and got a contract to work in the city.

Mehlolo worked in a factory in Germiston. He lived in a hostel. “I didn’t like the hostel,” says Mehlolo. “People steal your things. And the hostel is a lonely place. A man misses his family in the hostel.”

In 1973 Mehlolo got married. He married a woman called Rosina. They have four children already. Mehlolo only sees his family for a few weeks every year – when he goes home to get a new contract.

Mehlolo worked hard and he sent money home every month. Then in 1979 he got a bit lucky. He met this guy Mr Nkosi who has a small house in Katlehong.

Mehlolo outside the small house in Katlehong where he stays

Mehlolo outside the small house in Katlehong where he stays

Mehlolo told Mr Nkosi he hated the hostel. Mr Nkosi’s house was full. But he wanted to help his new friend. So he got Mehlolo a lodger’s permit and took him home to his small house in Katlehong.

So Mehlolo lived with Mr Nkosi and his family. When he got home late, Mehlolo didn’t want to wake the people inside. So he slept in a car outside.

Mehlolo liked his job. Then one day his problems began. “This white man started quarrelling with me,” says Mehlolo. “He said I didn’t want to listen to him. I lost my job in April last year.”

Now Mehlolo was a worried man. He was a contract worker and he had to go back home. But Mehlolo was in no hurry. He couldn’t throwaway his only chance. He had a wife and children to feed.

Mehlolo went to the pass office. He asked them for a special permit to stay in the city. But the people at the pass office were not so friendly. They told him to pack his bags and go back to Gazankulu.

Mehlolo bought a newspaper. He didn’t know what else to do. And in the paper he read a story about the Black Sash. The Black Sash helps people with their problems. So Mehlolo went to the Black Sash for help. They gave him a letter to take to the pass office. It didn’t help. They gave him another letter. It also didn’t help.

“I went back to the Black Sash,” says Mehlolo. “They told me to leave my problem with them. They said they will try and do something.”

Then a few weeks later Mehlolo went back to the factory. And they gave him his job back. Mehlolo felt a lot better.

In September 1981 Mehlolo got a letter from some lawyers. The lawyers said they had maybe found a way to help Mehlolo get Section 10 Rights. They said that before 1968, contract workers could get Section 10 Rights after 10 years with the same company. And Mehlolo had worked for the same company for 10 years – even before he was fired.

The lawyers said the government had no right to change the law in 1968. They said Mehlolo had worked for 10 years – and so he must now get Section 10 Rights.

So Mehlolo went to court. The lawyers helped him. They told the court Mehlolo must get Section 10 Rights.

Suddenly everybody knew the name Mehl’olo Tom Rikhoto. Thousands of people waited for the court to decide. Mehlolo’s court case gave thousands of other people some hope.

The East Rand Administration Board (ERAB) fought Mehlolo in court. They said the court must not give him Section 10 Rights. They said Mehlolo must not get Section 10 Rights because he went home every year to get a new contract. And the 1968 law said:

“When a worker goes home to ,get a new contract, he leaves his job. When he comes back to work, he starts a new contract. A new contract is like starting a new job.”

The court said ERAB was wrong. The court said Mehlolo had worked for the same company for 10 years – even if he went home to get a new contract. The court said Mehlolo must get his Section 10 Rights.

Mehlolo was happy. He could now stay in the cities. He did not have to go home when he lost his job. And he could now bring his family to stay with him. (A court case in the Cape in 1980 said: “Contract workers with Section 10 Rights can bring their families with them to the cities.” People call this court case the ‘Komani Case’).

But Mehlolo was not happy for long. ERAB were bad losers. They did not want to give Mehlolo his Section 10 Rights. They said they wanted the highest court in Bloemfontein to decide.

E RAB lost again. Last month the court in Bloemfontein said Mehlolo must get his Section 10 Rights.

Mehlolo was happy. And so were thousands of other contract workers. They thought they also could now get Section 10 Rights.

The head manager tried to smile but he couldn't.

The head manager tried to smile but he couldn’t.

“I went with my lawyers to get my Section 10 Rights stamp,” says Mehlolo. “I found many people there also waiting for the stamp. They shook my hand and said they were very proud of me.

“I went to the head manager’s office. And he gave me the stamp. He said nothing. He was trying to smile but he couldn’t.”

Mehlolo got his Section 10 Rights. But the administration boards didn’t give Section 10 Rights to any other contract workers. They said they needed time. They said this and they said that. They made many excuses.

The administration boards were waiting for the government to decide. But they were not the only ones waiting. About 143 thousand contract workers were also waiting. They had worked for one company for 10 years. Or they had worked for different companies for 15 years.

After a long time, the government decided. They said only some contract workers can get Section 10 Rights – only some contract workers. Dr Koornhof said maybe only about 5 000 contract workers will get Section 10 Rights.

The pass offices are now giving some people Section 10 stamps, in their passes. But

nobody knows who will and who won’t get Section 10 Rights. “We will have to wait for about six months before we will know what is happening,” says Ms Sheena Duncan of the Black Sash.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005And Dr Koornhof said something else: When these workers do get Section 10 Rights, they can’t just bring their families with them to live in the cities. They must get houses from the administration board or community council. They must buy a house. Or they must build a house. Or they must rent a house.

But everybody knows about the shortage of houses. Thousands of people are waiting for houses. And very few workers have the money to buy houses.

So after all this whole long story, Mehlolo Tom Rikhoto didn’t really win. He can stay in the city to find a job. But he can’t bring his family to live with him because he hasn’t got a house. And he knows he must wait for many years until he will get one. His name is now on the bottom of the waiting list.

Every contract worker dreams about having Section 10 Rights. They dream about living together with their families. But while they dream for just a chance in life, they must listen to people like Mr Roy de Wet. He is the director of the Drakensberg Administration Board.

“Most workers in our townships have homes in Kwa-Zulu,” Mr De Wet told a Johannesburg newspaper last month. “They do not want their families to join them. Most workers only want enough time to go back to their four or five wives to make them pregnant.” Thanks for nothing, Mr De Wet!.

ARE YOU A CONTRACT WORKER?

Have you worked for the same company for 10 years in one place? If you have, go to the pass office and ask for your Section 10 Rights. Take a letter from your company saying you have worked for 10 years.

Have you worked for different companies in the same town for 15 years? And have you had a proper permit to stay in the town? If you have, then go to the pass office and ask for your Section 10 Rights. Take a letter from the hostel or township superintendent saying you have a proper permit.

If you have problems, go to the Black Sash for help.

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7 thoughts on “Mehlolo Tom Rikhoto: The man who only wanted a chance

      • Thanks for the comment, John. Please let us know about him. Did you know about the story when you were growing up or is this the first time you are getting to know it? You can email us at learnandteachmag@gmail.com

    • A welcomed but nevertheless surprising aspect of this project is how family members of those reported on in the old magazine have made contact. We love it. Keep it coming. One of our readers a family member of the courageous leader, Tom Rikhoto, wrote to us today. This is how others wrote about this case. The New York Times in 1983.
      Even in South Africa, Respect for Law http://www.nytimes.com/1983/06/14/opinion/even-in-south-africa-respect-for-law.html
      Even as it dishonors humanity’s basic codes, South Africa worships forms of law. The security police will torture a prisoner to death, then the Government stages an elaborate inquiry to clear itself. The Government ”bans” dissenters, denying their most elementary rights and virtually their existence, but only under duly enacted statutes.
      It is a paradox that can still serve conscience, and some courageous lawyers in Johannesburg are trying to make the most of their country’s residual scruple. They have persuaded South Africa’s highest court that the oppressive apartheid laws have been made even harsher by bureaucratic misinterpretations. Now Parliament must respond, with more ”legal” racism or with some humanity.
      South Africa’s racial laws deny most blacks the right to live in cities, even if white employers have recruited them away from their rural and legally separate ”homelands.” One exception lets blacks reside in cities where they have worked continuously for 10 years. When Mehlolo Tom Rikhoto, an engi-neer who had worked in the same town since 1970, tried to exercise that right, administrators decreed, as they always have, that his service was not continuous. Why? Because he obeyed another law that required him to return to his homeland once a year to renew his work permit. How do you say catch-22 in Afrikaans?
      The Legal Resources Center, a law firm supported by American and South African foundations and corporations, took Mr. Rikhoto’s case to court and won a decision against this narrow reading of the residence law. The judges hardly proclaimed a bill of rights for blacks, but they at least held the Government to the letter of its own law.
      While Parliament remains free to alter that letter, any true sense of justice will inspire respect for its common-sense meaning. The black man earned his right with his labor. His lawyers earned it with their ingenuity in pressing for peaceful change. The court earned it by preventing even official racism from rising above the law.

  1. A welcomed but nevertheless surprising aspect of this project is how family members of those reported on in the old magazine have made contact. We love it. Keep it coming. One of our readers a family member of the courageous leader, Tom Rikhoto, wrote to us today. This is how others wrote about this case. The New York Times in 1983.
    Even in South Africa, Respect for Law http://www.nytimes.com/1983/06/14/opinion/even-in-south-africa-respect-for-law.html
    Even as it dishonors humanity’s basic codes, South Africa worships forms of law. The security police will torture a prisoner to death, then the Government stages an elaborate inquiry to clear itself. The Government ”bans” dissenters, denying their most elementary rights and virtually their existence, but only under duly enacted statutes.
    It is a paradox that can still serve conscience, and some courageous lawyers in Johannesburg are trying to make the most of their country’s residual scruple. They have persuaded South Africa’s highest court that the oppressive apartheid laws have been made even harsher by bureaucratic misinterpretations. Now Parliament must respond, with more ”legal” racism or with some humanity.
    South Africa’s racial laws deny most blacks the right to live in cities, even if white employers have recruited them away from their rural and legally separate ”homelands.” One exception lets blacks reside in cities where they have worked continuously for 10 years. When Mehlolo Tom Rikhoto, an engi-neer who had worked in the same town since 1970, tried to exercise that right, administrators decreed, as they always have, that his service was not continuous. Why? Because he obeyed another law that required him to return to his homeland once a year to renew his work permit. How do you say catch-22 in Afrikaans?
    The Legal Resources Center, a law firm supported by American and South African foundations and corporations, took Mr. Rikhoto’s case to court and won a decision against this narrow reading of the residence law. The judges hardly proclaimed a bill of rights for blacks, but they at least held the Government to the letter of its own law.
    While Parliament remains free to alter that letter, any true sense of justice will inspire respect for its common-sense meaning. The black man earned his right with his labor. His lawyers earned it with their ingenuity in pressing for peaceful change. The court earned it by preventing even official racism from rising above the law.

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