"Is this the place that prosecutes white women who employ black servants?"
At the other end of the line Pinkie Madlala chuckled to herself when she heard the question. But she was gratified that word is getting around about the efforts of the law clinic where she works to help black servants get their legal rights.
Housed on the third floor of a dingy office building overlooking the black railway station in central Johannesburg, the student-staffed law clinic is one of four offering free legal aid to poor blacks.
They are all run by South Africa's first fulltime public interst law firm, the Legal Resources Center, established in January 1979 with funds from the Carnegie, Ford and rockefeller foundations.
"The clinical law movement that his the U.S. about 15 years ago is just hitting South Africa now," explained Geoff Budlender, one of the center's eight white professional lawyers who supervise the clincs.
The center has been a success in several ways. First, it has gained domestic financial support from eight South African companies. This is no small feat in a country where racial discrimination and segregation are supported by the legal system and court fights on behalf of blacks often carry antigovernment overtones.
Second, although law students working at the clinics initially came from a nearby English-language universtiy, Afrikaner students from the conservative Rand Afrikaans University, where progovernment sentiment is strong, this year asked to join in "and have been tremendously positive," Budlender said.
Third, several cases pursed in court by the center's professional staff have had tangible impact. In one case a high court judge ruled that a regulation used by government officials to keep black women from joining their working husbands in the cities was not in accordance with the law.
This technically opened the way for thousands of black women to join their spouses. Because of the center's resourses. Because of the center's resources and full-time staff, it is able to do what has been neglected in the past -- force the bureaucracy to comply with that ruling. Shortly, it will go to court with 10 other cases of couples in a similar situation.
"In this way, we hope to compel them to comply with the law, by wearing them down, by embarrassing them," Budlender said.
In another case that has affected administrative practice, one of the original promoters of the Legal Resources Center, lawyer Felicia Kentridge, got compensation from a white farmer who had beaten a black prisoner hired out to him as a laborer by the Prison Department. Although the practice of hiring out prisoners as farm hads continues, the Prison Department has topped sending them to this particular farm.
The center and its clinics also delayed for a year a fare hike requested by a bus company, thus saving black commuters more than $5 million in transport costs. It also helped more than 100 domestic servants illegally dismissed without notice or severance pay and took legal action on behalf of black clients fleeced by funeral parlors and second-hand car or furniture dealers.
While the Legal Resources Center has been breaking new ground in the country's courts, Denis Beckett is involved in some experimental journalism in a one-man, shoestring-budget operation across town.
Beckett may be attempting the impossible in South Africa's polarized population: a popular but serious magazine that has credibility with all sections of the community, especially those that matter most -- blacks and Afrikaners.
"I don't wnat Frontline to be a white magazine or a black magazine," said the curly-haired Beckett. "I want it to stimulate ideas in the direction of a common society that we are living in and that we are going to live in no matter what. I want people who don't like what it says to read it."
Unlike most serious publications in this country, Frontline is not linked to any political party, nor is it geared specifically to a black or white audience. Its six issues so far have featured a debate on the merits of capitalism and socialism by black and white contributors; an article on the problems caused when affirmative action puts blacks into managerial positions; one on what it is like to be a traffic cop -- black or white -- and others on rugby and nuclear power. Letters to the editor appear in English and Afrikaans.
Frontline's readership has grown to 7,000 with a subscription list of 1,800, including the chief of the Army. But it is still on shaky ground. A group of militant blacks came to Beckett's office to ask him to shut down because the magazine was "confusing the people" by cultivating the idea that it is worthwhile to talk to whites.
The government has demanded the maximum amount under law, $26,000, as the magazinehs legally required guarantee of responsibility deposit. If the fee, which the minister of justice can adjust as he sees fit, is not lowered, it will put Frontline out of business. Beckett, 32, has already mortgaged his house to finance the publication.
"Advertising is coming in just fast enough to keep checks from bouncing. It's like running a race with a crowbar tied to your legs," he said.
Beckett has found that three Afrikaner-controlled firms, not the overseas multinationals, "who profess to be doing all they can to cultivate change here," have been most generous in buying advertising space in Frontline.
I'm fighting a battle," he sighed. "But I'm not prepared at this stage to say it's a losing one."