When South Africa introduced new visa regulations to control the movement of children coming into the country, it was immediately felt by its neighbours.
For instance, in Swaziland, three-quarters of which is surrounded by South Africa, there is no information from the government to guide citizens on what is needed to travel across the border with children. As a result, hundreds of travellers have been turned back because they did not have the proper papers.
The home affairs ministry in Swaziland has been most unhelpful. The minister, Princess Tsandzile Dlamini, has, by her own admission, never spoken to her counterpart in South Africa, Malusi Gigaba, to gain clarity on the matter.
The South African media have tended to look at the effect of the visa regulations on the tourism industry and the resultant financial losses, but the ramifications go much further.
Take the story of Sibongile (not her real name) who, two years ago, enrolled at a university in Johannesburg to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Her parents found her a small flat in Braamfontein, furnished it and paid the rent. They also gave her a monthly allowance.
It was not long before the then 20-year-old got caught up in the hustle and bustle of the fast life in South Africa’s economic hub and came off the rails. She met a young man, fell in love and got pregnant. The nightmare began.
Today, Sibongile is back in Swaziland looking after her infant son. Her boyfriend, who lives in Soweto, denies paternity and refuses to take responsibility for the child.
His family suggested the matter be settled once the child was born and they could see whether he resembled his purported father.
But, since her son’s birth in the middle of this year, Sibongile has been unable to take him to Soweto because she believes she cannot enter South Africa without the permission of his other parent.
The father’s name has been left blank on the birth certificate, issued at home affairs in Swaziland, and the child has been registered as Swazi.
Even though it would appear where one parent is not listed on the birth certificate there is no need to seek that parent’s permission to travel with the child to South Africa, this is not clear to the average Swazi.
Most parents in Swaziland, even those who are married, now simply leave their children behind even when travelling to nearby Piet Retief (eMkhondo) and Nelspruit (Mbombela) for a day of shopping.
South Africa is now considered unfriendly to children.
When the regulations came into effect, Dlamini could not shed light on the issue, saying it was a South African initiative. In an interview recently, the princess advised people to take fewer trips to South Africa because of the frustrations that come with trying to cross the border.
There has been no official guidance for Swazis on how child travel into South Africa works. Even South Africa’s high commission has not said a word to the public.
Until about 15 years ago, when the law changed, Sibongile would have been in a far worse predicament because a child born of a foreign father to a Swazi woman was not allowed to be registered as Swazi. Sibongile’s family has resigned itself to raising the child on its own. She has dropped out of university and is unemployed. The only person who is in gainful employment in her household is her father, who works in a government department in Mbabane.
Sibongile’s son’s inability to visit his extended family in Soweto raises two culture-related problems.
The first is that Sibongile’s father would like to claim the cow he believes the young man’s family owes him for deflowering his daughter outside marriage. The second is that, had they satisfied themselves that the child belonged to them, the family in Soweto would have wanted the boy to go through his clan’s traditional rites.
The child may well grow up not knowing his true identity, which has caused some African men to lose their direction in life.
There may be respite for both families with the revised regulations coming into effect in January. But these are only known to a few people who follow the news. Many Swazis will not even know that the visa laws have been relaxed.
All that they now know, thanks to an announcement by local police, is that on December 1 a new regulation came into effect requiring anyone driving a car into South Africa to carry its blue book (proof of ownership) if driven by the owner. If the car is driven by someone else, that person must produce a letter of consent from the owner.
A lot of attention has been given by the media to the economic costs of South Africa’s decision to tighten controls at its borders. But South Africa also needs to pay attention to the long-term effects this might have on its relations with neighbouring countries, particularly because of the close links that exist through economic dependency as well as through kith and kin.
In recent years, South Africa has accelerated its efforts to improve relations with affluent economies, going so far as to join Brics, the club that includes Brazil, Russia, China and India, in an effort to draw investment into the country.
There is nothing wrong with such an initiative. But given the position South Africa is taking with its immediate neighbours, the country is starting to come across as the proverbial migrant worker during apartheid, who left his home and his wife and children in Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique or Lesotho and travelled thousands of kilometres to seek his fortune in the rich gold mines of Johannesburg.
Now settled in the land of milk and honey, dazzled by the fast life of a big city, the migrant worker has found himself a new lover and has forgotten about his family.
Perhaps he will return many years hence, broke and diseased, expecting to be looked after by the family he once abandoned for the glitz and glamour of the high life.
Bheki Makhubu is a Swazi journalist and edits the Nation magazine in Swaziland