Till Home Affairs us do part: couple can’t say ‘I do’ because they’re still married to their dead spouses
An elderly couple who plan to get married next month have discovered that in the red-tape world of Home Affairs, death does not part you. The department’s system shows they are still married to their dead spouses.
The invitations have been sent, the dress made and the hall hired for Gqeberha couple Audrey Thomas (75) and Edgar Meyer (76) to tie the knot on 10 September.
Friends for the past 40 years, Thomas and Meyer fell in love after they lost their spouses in 2018 and 2020. But as they prepared for their wedding and saw the priest they wished to marry them, they were told to obtain a validation certificate from Home Affairs to confirm that neither of them was married any more – something that would apparently be quick and painless. Only it wasn’t.
In the past, couples who wished to get married and were widowed could merely present the death certificates of their respective spouses to the marriage officers.
Home Affairs included this requirement in an effort to fight fraudulent marriages.
The problem appears to be that the Home Affairs system had not updated the marital statuses of either Meyer or Thomas and both are still reflected as legally married to their spouses.
“We even took them the stamped death certificates,” Meyer said. “But they say there is nothing they can do. Home Affairs themselves had stamped both death certificates.”
After being referred to “Counter 11” for service, Meyer had no luck. When he asked to see a supervisor he was told the problem was with “head office”.
“They were blaming Covid-19 for the backlog,” Thomas said, “but our spouses both died before Covid.”
The stress of the situation has caused Thomas’s health to deteriorate and her ulcer to flare up.
“I asked a friend if he could go to head office in Pretoria but was told that they do not see members of the public at head office,” Meyer said. “I was advised that it would be completely in vain for him to go because they will not let him in.”
“Officials also told me that documentation can only be sent to ‘head office’ in Pretoria by post. It cannot be sent in any other way,” he said.
This has been done a few times already.
Living in sin
An Anglican priest in Gqeberha, Nicolette Leonard, said she was desperate to help the couple. “They do not want to live in sin. And they are old. I am doing everything I can to help them.” She said a senior manager at Home Affairs had indicated that he would try to help.
With the big day around the corner, Meyer is now desperate for a resolution.
“If someone can tell me what to do I will do it,” he said.
Leonard said other marriage officers had the same problem with couples where one or both of them were divorced.
The department introduced this step “due to the large number of fraudulent marriages reported to the Department of Home Affairs [DHA] every year”, according to its website.
South Africans used to be able to check their marital status by SMSing the letter M followed by an ID number to 32551, but this service has been suspended. In September 2021, Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi explained in a written answer to Parliament why the online verification system (OVS) had been suspended.
“The [system] was initially deployed and accessed by citizens for the online verification of marital status, passport and ID application status, among others.
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“The system gained popularity to the point whereby insurance companies were not using proper processes. However, insurance companies opted to use the same free service designed for individual citizens.
“International users were identified trying to access our National Population Register system via the unsecured system,” he explained.
He said this posed a risk to the safety of citizens’ data.
“The department was then advised to temporarily close the OVS and work on a solution to address all identified risks. Security of citizens’ data is the priority of the DHA. That’s why the department opted to temporarily close the system, until OVS is secured and is solely accessed by the authorised users.
“Thereafter, [the] DHA separated OVS processes for insurance companies and citizens, into two phases.
“The former is already in commission, while the latter is being planned to be released as a second phase… Efforts are under way to provide such services in a more secure fashion,” Motsoaledi added.
Home Affairs media manager David Hlabane has not yet responded to a request for comment from the department. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.