Hard by the railroad station is the office of the Black Sash, an organization founded by white women to help black South Africans cope with the law -- in particular, the so-called pass laws that specify where blacks can live. In theory, offenders against the pass laws must go to jail. In practice, many do.

At this moment, a mountainous black woman is sitting on a stool before a desk. Behind the desk is a Black Sash worker named Beulah Rollnick. In an attempt to persuade the authorities to allow the woman to live in the Johannesburg area, Rollnick is preparing an affidavit -- a document that will be skeptically read more for what it doesn't say than for what it does.

"Are you married?" Rollnick asks. The woman says she was, but no longer. "Do you have a boyfriend?" With pride, the woman says she does. Rollnick has an idea. The woman should marry her boyfriend and thus qualify for residency by marriage. The woman frowns. "But he not a single man," she says.

"Then you must wait five years," Rollnick says.

"My God!" the woman exclaims. "By then I would be dead."

By then, the odious pass laws may themselves be dead. An influential businessman here says that even within the ruling National Party the real question is not whether to end the pass laws, but when. In the meantime, they persist -- a Kafkaesque labyrinth of regulations that brings about 25,000 persons annually to Black Sash offices throughout the country.

On the day I visited, they were lined up in the outer office and occasionally drifted into the hallways, seemingly confused. One old lady, bundled in blankets, came just for food.

Rollnick's next case was a man who said he was born in nearby Soweto. Even so, his English is rudimentary and a translator is summoned to talk to him in the Sotho language. The man's name is Joseph, and his own life is a mystery to him. He does not know whether he was born at home or in a hospital. He does not know the whereabouts of his father. His mother is dead. School is something of a blur, although unlike the woman who follows, he can both read and write. It is hard to figure out what he knows and what he does not know since what he knows for sure is that nothing matters but satisfying the authorities.

At other desks, similar stories are unfolding. The Black Sash office is a kind of Ellis Island for the native-born, a processing center for people who are aliens in their own country. Even so, there is nothing official about Black Sash. It can only advise and then send people on their way, armed with a typed affidavit that an official may or may not accept. Sometimes, the blacks return, rejected and not even knowing why. Like Kafka's Joseph K., they are accused of a crime that's never revealed.

A memory comes to mind. I think of sitting in the town hall of a village in Poland, sifting through documents for the history of my family. The records are elaborate, anecdotal, and the lies apparent. My ancestors, fearing the authorities whose language they sometimes could not even speak, told them what they thought they wanted to hear: little lies for big officials.

Historical comparison takes you only so far. The blacks of South Africa are not a racial or religious minority. They are the majority. Yet, like my great-grandfather, they must come before authorities and be told where they may live in their own country. The black woman who wants to live near Johannesburg is asking for nothing less than freedom. As it is now, she must live with the family that employs her. If she loses the job, if she quits, if she is fired -- she loses everything, employment and residency. She must then move to her "homeland."

For the woman who wants only to live near Johannesburg -- and who, incidentally, is forbidden to live in the city itself -- the reform that counts is hardly on the horizon. The time that South Africa wants to work out its problems is being deducted from her life. She had it about right in her interview with Rollnick. By the time true reform comes, she may be dead.