South Africa

Maverick Citizen: Op-ed

Born in SA to ‘foreign’ parents, I am a second-class citizen

Born in SA to ‘foreign’ parents, I am a second-class citizen

There appears to be a general consensus within the South African government that children born in the country from non-South African parents are not ‘really’ South African. Having been in this predicament myself, I beg to differ as I am more South African than Zimbabwean. This blatant disregard by the Department of Home Affairs in particular inspires in me a sense of anger and loss. I seem to belong neither here nor there.

The first time I realised that I did not belong to this country I so strongly considered mine was when I was in Grade 11, where my right to accessing basic education was threatened. I vividly remember being called over the intercom while in class to report immediately to the principal’s office. As I walked down the corridor, anxiously straightened my uniform and quickly rummaged through the catalogue that is my mind in search of what I could have possibly done wrong. Little did I know that my mere presence in school and in the country was the only thing that I did wrong. I was an alien in my country of birth.

Upon arrival, my principal plainly stated to me and the 10 or so undocumented Grade 11 pupils in her office, “I have no idea how you got into school because I have no documentation for you. You all need to get your papers together because the department (Department of Education) will not allow you to continue attending school.”

Following this, my mother and I went to the Department of Home Affairs, where I was told by a supervisor that the abridged South African birth certificate I received as an infant was merely to register my birth and not “to go to school here or whatever you people are doing”. 

This single encounter with a supervisor at the Department of Home Affairs echoes the legislative narrative that restricts the access to education for many undocumented minors.

Having no other option, I applied for a study visa on my Zimbabwean passport as a means to an end. This logic was, however, short-lived as I soon realised that I would not be able to practise law, receive medical treatment, secure funding for my studies or just live without a South African identity document. Besides these practical aspects of my existence that were being restricted, the most harrowing aspect of this was its impact on my emotional and psychological well-being.

I was confused and angry. I could not fathom why I was being reduced to being a second-class citizen in my country of birth. I did not know how to respond when asked where I was from. Claiming that I was Zimbabwean was not an option, because the initial question would be followed by another: “So where in Zimbabwe are you from?” – usually asked in Shona, a language I do not speak. My home language is English.

On the other hand, if I answered that I was South African, questions would arise with regards to what ethnic group I belonged to. And I was always weary to claim South African citizenship because I had yet to be recognised by the Department of Home Affairs as such. Often I would console myself by answering “I don’t know”, a simple and complex answer depending on how you looked at it.

The judgment of Ali v Minister of Home Affairs was a game changer for me and many others alike. The light at the end of a tunnel, if you will, the second coming of Christ, the summit appeared to be in full view. This may seem dramatic, but I was genuinely elated and hopeful. This judgment among other things enforced section 4 (3) of the Citizenship Act which in summary declared persons over the age of 18 born of non-South African parents in South Africa as citizens. On condition that their birth be registered and that they may prove their presence in the Republic from birth to date.

Finding that I qualified, I speedily got to work and compiled an affidavit in July 2019. Six months later I have yet to receive a response or even an acknowledgement that my application was received. Considering how elated I was after relishing the promises that the Ali judgment presented itself with, I was devastatingly disillusioned. It was like paddling into the ocean on a surfboard and being knocked back by a mammoth wave even before you could stand on the surfboard.

Needless to say, like Ali and the others, I remain resolute and determined in obtaining my South African citizenship and having that of many others recognised. By oiling the rusty and creaky wheels of the Department of Home Affairs into gear through advocacy and legal precedents, true justice will be administered.

Constant “othering” and denialism by government officials is bound to have detrimental impacts on constitutionally guaranteed rights, with the potential to violate the rights to human dignity, equal treatment before the law as well as other rights exclusive to South African citizens. Long-term impacts are best illustrated by the Banyamulenge tribe in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who, in spite of their settling in the DRC from Rwanda in the 19th century, continue to be denied their right to Congolese citizenship and have essentially become stateless, a condition that has sparked many violent conflicts in the DRC.

I have just completed my undergraduate degree in law and development studies (BA in law) with distinction from the University of Johannesburg and am currently pursuing my LLB degree with the aspiration of becoming a human rights lawyer. Through this career in human rights I aim to set out to assist others who have been excluded and marginalised, something I cannot do without my South African citizenship being recognised. Securing employment will also be difficult.

The South Africa government and in particular the Department of Home Affairs have ample opportunity to nip a potential crisis in the bud before it comes into full bloom. Constant marginalisation and unfulfilled legislative obligations leave the citizenship question unanswered and unresolved, a question that need not have been posed in the first place. MC

Christy Chitengu is an aspiring human rights lawyer. She is completing her LLB degree at the University of Johannesburg.


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