Members of the small Bakwena tribe, whose forced removal from their farming village of Mogope nearly two years ago caused an international outcry, won a ruling in South Africa's highest court today declaring their eviction illegal.
Lawyers said it was still uncertain whether the tribe, whose 300 peasant families have been split into three scattered settlements, would be able to return to its ancestral land 120 miles west of Johannesburg.
They also said the judgment handed down by Chief Justice Pieter Rabie and four other Appeal Court judges meant no more forced removals could be ordered by the government without the approval of Parliament, whose Asian and mixed-race chambers would be unlikely to give their assent.
"This could mean the end of forced removals," the Bakwena tribe's lawyer, Nicholas Haysom, said tonight. "Theoretically the government still has the power to do it because it can override a veto by any of the chambers, but I think the political cost would be too high."
The judgment is the second to go against the government in recent weeks and follows the reprieve of two other black farming communities that have fought government attempts to force them off ancestral land in what is officially classified as white territory and resettle them in tribal "homelands" set aside for occupation by the country's 87 percent black majority.
Two weeks ago the Supreme Court of eastern Cape Province ruled illegal a government order giving jurisdiction over a farming village called Mgwali to the nominally independent Ciskei homeland, to which South Africa has been trying for 10 years to transfer the village.
Last month the government gave up its attempts to move two other "black spot" communities in eastern Transvaal Province, Driefontein and KwaNgema, to homeland territory.
"Seen in context with the government's recent statements that it is to review the pass laws and grant South African citizenship to some blacks, it is just possible that we may have reached the end of forced removals," said Sheena Duncan, president of the Black Sash women's civil rights organization.
Later today, however, a meeting between a government deputy minister, Ben Wilkins, and another threatened black community proved inconclusive. Wilkins told the residents of Mothopestad, near Mogope, that he would appoint a commissioner to decide whether they were the rightful owners of "white" land they have occupied since the last century.
Today's court ruling applies only to the removal order, not to the government's subsequent expropriation of the Bakwena tribe's 30,000 acres of farmland at Mogope. Haysom, the tribe's lawyer, said that meant the Bakwena would have to ask the courts to declare the expropriation invalid as well.
Haysom said today's judgment provided a basis for doing that, as well as grounds for demanding that the tribe be paid compensation for having its land expropriated. Members of the Black Sash who have helped the Bakwena in their fight estimated that compensation could be between $2 million and $3 million.
The Bakwena were removed from their homes at gunpoint on the night of Feb. 14, 1984, and driven to a resettlement camp called Pachsdraai, nearly 200 miles to the west, which is scheduled for incorporation in the nearby Bophuthatswana "homeland."
Some members of the tribe had agreed to move to Pachsdraai, but most refused to stay and moved on instead to tribal land at Bethani, closer to Pretoria and Johannesburg, where they formed two settlements.
A spokesman for the tribe said tonight he was sure most of the families would want to return to the land that they had occupied since 1911 and where their ancestors are buried.