For years I was that loneliest of souls: a defender of Home Affairs.
When my own country refused to let my family live in the United States in 2008 because my kids have gay parents, South Africa gave us a home. When my partner and I decided to get married, long before the United States would give us that right, a Home Affairs official wed us. He, and everyone in his office, was charming and kind and made our marriage feel special.
For all of this I was, and remain, grateful.
But what’s happening now is appalling. We’ve seen Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir allowed to travel freely, while families vacationing for school holidays are grilled relentlessly at airports and border crossings.
I could write several thousand words about what we’ve been through with Home Affairs for immigration papers over the last month. Our friends and co-workers have suffered demands for bribes and intimidation, over and over again. Delays in processing visas for legally resident foreigners have been meant missed funerals, skipped weddings, lost job opportunities – repeated slights that foreigners have long learned to accept because we love South Africa and South Africans.
But this week, I stood with a single mother and her child as a Home Affairs officer ripped into us, demanding the most private parts of their lives be put on public display, leaving them both in tears. I’m nauseated. And they’re both South Africans. Fear for the foreigners.
For two days, young Lemo was checked in for his flight to Geneva to visit loved ones, and for two days he was rejected at immigration. The first day, the list of problems included blurry stamps: They claimed they couldn’t read the date on the certified copy of Lemo’s unabridged birth certificate. Even though he had the original in hand. That was a whole conversation about why the original is valid for travel.
Then they wanted further proof of who would pick him up in Geneva: They wanted an affidavit and a certified copy of the passport of the person picking up Lemo. Fine, but that requirement is not clearly indicated any of the three varying sets of rules published on the Home Affairs website. Those rules speak about foreign children visiting South Africa. I can’t find a rule about South African children visiting abroad. An original, official guarantee of accommodation, signed and stamped in Europe, was not enough. But they would accept a scanned copy of the affidavit and passport.
So we returned the next day, with more papers in hand, more money spent on a new flight… but mysteriously the newly obtained documents were no longer required. In fact, we get confused looks when we offered them.
Instead, Home Affairs insisted on a court order showing his mother Nkele has sole rights and responsibilities for Lemo. This was never mentioned by visa agents in Europe, the airline, or home affairs. No father is listed on his birth certificate. There effectively is no father to give consent for 11-year-old Lemo to travel.
When I checked the rules online on my phone at the airport, I suddenly saw the requirement was in fact there. Air France agents, who had checked Lemo in twice, produced another, different list of requirements that also seemed to require a court order.
The unabridged birth certificate was not enough, even though it was issued by Home Affairs and shows Nkele as the only parent. Meaning they don’t trust their own documents. A signed affidavit from Nkele was not enough. The return ticket and the collection of now two affidavits guaranteeing his return were not enough. The visa issued to visit Europe, which also required Nkele to prove her standing, was not enough.
Nkele was not allowed to go to immigration with Lemo on either day. When an agent finally agreed to meet with her – after the flight had departed – he loudly demanded in the middle of the check in lanes that she explain what happened to Lemo’s father, why she hadn’t contacted him, why she had never gone to court. He accused her of disregard for the law, of ignoring the rules, of being too lazy to check on the requirements. Why he would insult and demean them over a piece of a paper, I can’t imagine.
After arguing about the papers, and insisting on the many efforts she’d made to satisfy the rules?—?which cost time, money and missed days of work?—?I asked to speak to his manager. He said there is no manager. There is no way to complain. He then told his “sister” that her opinion did not matter, that there was nothing she could do, and that she could not ask Home Affairs to reconsider the rules.
In fact, he did not know the rules. A flurry of phone calls and emails to immigration agents, lawyers and Home Affairs offices made by all of their loved ones found a definitive answer: if only one parent is named on the unabridged birth certificate, Home Affairs cannot demand a court order for a child to be allowed to travel.
But if the immigration officers don’t know the rules, if the airlines can’t understand the rules, how can anyone hope to comply?
Only one third of South Africa’s kids live with both parents. How many other single parents, grandparents and other legal caregivers are being forced to meet unreasonable requirements to travel? As if it’s not enough that they work and raise kids alone. They must spend more time and money and lost wages to prove that they are doing it. And if they complain, they get slapped down.
I would say that this is directed at single mothers, except that while we were there, a Zimbabwean father was not being allowed to bring his child home to Zimbabwe. Their papers were inadequate, even though the same papers were good enough to enter the country the week before.
We live in our big country with many borders. Many of our kids cross borders routinely to visit family and loved ones, attend worship, go to school, or simply experience the world.
Like it or not, Home Affairs is part of our most important and personal moments in life: we go to them when we marry, when our children are born, when our parents pass away. We see Home Affairs when we travel, whether to work, to study, to compete in sports or to explore the world.
At these moments, we deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion and respect.
So let’s fix Home Affairs.
Let’s write our experiences and tweet them all to @HomeAffairsSA.
Let’s email them to Minister Gigaba at [email protected]. He’s been getting so many complaints that he’s closed his Twitter account.
The full list of parliamentary contacts is at http://www.parliament.gov.za/live/content.php?Category_ID=97
The parliamentary committee on Home Affairs is also reachable here: [email protected]
And report corruption. The hotline is 0800 701 701. Save it on your phone.
I personally plan to start recording all interactions with Home Affairs on my phone. If you have a smartphone and a good data plan (or bandwith left on the airport’s free Wifi), broadcast your experience live with Meerkat or Snapchat.
We know it can be better. #fixhomeaffairs DM