A geographic accident. That is what most of us are. Our ancestral DNA is drawn from the four corners of the globe through eons of migration, forced and voluntary.
Yet authorities insist that we must be claimed or “belong” to a particular country or nationality – even if it no longer exists or if we have been driven from it. Across the world it is increasingly fraught and difficult for people to obtain official documents claiming citizenship or rights to residence. We must resist and make it an election issue globally.
Like many, I am a product of economic migrancy and war. My mother and father found themselves in Europe, that genocidal continent, during and after World War II.
She was Portuguese, deliberately kept semi-literate by a political system at the time and migrated from her poverty-stricken country to work as “a domestic help” for an English family.
My father was a soldier in Hitler’s army, captured at Arnhem, and interred in the UK as a prisoner of war. He was, technically, and literally gunning for the UK, which is why there is a certain irony that I, his daughter, should be entitled to UK citizenship.
After the war they married and created two new people, my brother and I. The country of my birth is not the county of my heart and soul. That belongs to South Africa where I have lived for most of my adult life apart from the first two hazy years.
South Africa has shaped and made me real. I am a older, white, middle-class woman with a sense of agency and privilege and my dealings with officials naturally reflect this. What also helps is my vague knowledge of the law as a result of my job as a journalist and hustler of life.
The first time in almost half a century the random nature of my birth came to cause me any anxiety was shortly before a recent trip to the UK on business in June.
I do not possess and neither do I wish to, British citizenship. I travel on a South African passport, I do not seek any privileges from having been born in the colonising North. I pay for my visas.
Only thing that doesn’t happen is I don’t get singled out in the the arrivals queue unlike my fellow black and brown South Africans. In Europe I get waved through. A harmless old white lady. I am invisible there once my passport and visa has been scrutinised and I cross the hallowed portal into the EU.
Before my departure, at my local bank, the clerk who was issuing me with a few measly euros and pounds so I could buy a coffee on arrival, squinted as he scanned my old SA-issued green ID book (I have a lovely brand new SA passport as well but it was the ID book that hooked his interest).
“This isn’t valid you know?” he remarked casually.
“This ID is old and tattered and not valid any more. It says here on the system that you have to re-Fica your account but if I use this ID number your account will be frozen.”
“But Home Affairs told me I am not entitled to the new ID card because I am not born in SA, so what would you suggest I do?”
“I don’t know. I am just telling you that your ID is invalid.”
“But, but you are not Home Affairs, you are a bank clerk.”
He just shrugged.
I wonder if the Gupta family encountered such an employee in South Africa after their citizenship was fast-tracked under Malusi Gigaba’s watch. Minister Gigaba himself might find himself at the mercy of officials one day who might view his alleged birth in Mozambique with suspicion. That’s if the rumour is true. There is nothing wrong with being born elsewhere. It is not a crime as the EFF might like to suggest. It is just life.
There we have it.
Just like that, I find myself potentially at that awful threshold of the stateless no man’s land so many in the world are banished to, drifting, without papers or ID. Abused by systems that do not “recognise” them.
At first a terrible frisson of fear and panic rose within me. The kind of panic petty officials who do not know the law enjoy provoking. Perhaps it is a deeply embedded epigenetic memory but my first thought was “Shit, I am going to be arrested”.
My second response was anger.
I have done nothing wrong.
Why should I fear that something as simple as my right to citizenship and an ID would suddenly be taken from me?
I was naturalised a South African in the early 1960s after my parents had immigrated here. I have children here. I have paid tax for over 30 years. I know nowhere else.
Every day, everywhere in the world, citizens and voters are increasingly finding it difficult to source documents that they are entitled to.
There is a denial of administrative justice because global political currents have resulted in a massive, tragic migration of refugees to the North, (and the US) as a result of war and collapsing economies.
There is also in Europe and the UK a rising nationalism reflected in the manner in which those seeking their birthrights are treated by the system. Now “vault” copies of documents that are “apostiled” are required.
Brexit and Trump are a manifestation of “fortress Europe” and the closing of the European mind, never mind borders.
From the Portuguese to the Germans to the English and the South Africans, I have been sent from the proverbial pillar (where I often wish I will turn into salt) to post in a quest for documents that are legally mine and to which I am entitled. Oh and the cost keeps rising.
So far I have had to cough up in the region of R5,000 which is bound to escalate the closer I get to my goal.
Governments across the world who require us to have these documents have outsourced the work to private companies who profit massively – visas, registration of births or deaths, every little detail they can find to charge you to do a job we pay tax for governments and officials to do.
And there are no humans at the other end of the problem. Only websites with standard forms and which oftentimes crash when you upload them. The UK government website informs you that if it freezes you have to call them but you need your credit card ready to pay the charge of the call!
Short of storming the embassies or consulates you will not be dealing with a sympathetic, fellow human being. And that is the point. A website feels nothing, ever.
Attempting to locate a copy of my father’s birth certificate issued in 1925 in East Prussia (which no longer exists because the Germans started World War II) has morphed into the equivalent of an episode from Faulty Towers.
And yes, I had to mention the war.
The fact that my father’s town, Allenstein, no longer exists is not my problem dear Germany, it is yours.
The Portuguese, for an administrative matter involving my mother, require an “unabridged death certificate” from Home Affairs in South Africa.
I almost burst into tears on receiving this news. I know I am going to be sent form office to office, from person to person who will tell me they can’t find it. My mother died in 1997.
An “unabridged birth certificate” I can understand – you need to know the particulars of parents etc. But a death certificate? What details might it contain? The person who administered the last rites? The nurse who brought water? Who was at the bedside?
To register my mother’s death in Portugal will cost me R5,000. Why, no one can explain. They might as well say “because we can”.
Home Affairs in South Africa have consistently defied court orders to reopen refugee centres in the country. Home Affairs offices and officials dealing with migrants are notoriously corrupt and inefficient and appear to enjoy causing fear and anxiety.
The notion or idea of “nationality” is rapidly changing in a post-911 world. Restricting the movement of people, apart from those who are wealthy enough to fry on holiday on the beaches of Dubai or the South of France, is going to be one of the key issues of the late 21st Century.
We should begin to ask our politicians about it. It can, should and must become a matter we take up en masse and for which we must demand simple administrative justice. If governments require us to have documents, they must give them to us with the least amount of hassle and cost.
That is freedom. DM
In other news...
July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.
In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."
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The hacking tools used in the Matrix were real actual tools.