Schools close to the Mozambique and Swaziland borders in Mpumalanga are refusing to admit hundreds — and possibly thousands — of learners because they don’t have South African birth certificates and identity documents, a Mail & Guardian investigation has found.
Bizarrely, many children of Mozambican and Swazi parents, who were born in the country and have attended primary schools in the rural towns of Jeppes Reef and Komatipoort for years, are being turned away when they seek admission to high schools.
A principal, who wished not to be identified, said that a home affairs department official had warned schools during a meeting in November that those who admit pupils without proper documentation could face a fine of R5 000. But Mpumalanga’s education MEC, Reginah Mhaule, said she was not aware of this threat.
An M&G investigation found that those who had been barred from admission to the lower grades or who were forced to drop out before writing matric included:
About 200 learners from Cromati Combined School in the village of Orlando in Komatipoort — near the border with Mozambique — who were refused admission at the beginning of this year;
About 30 learners from Buyani Primary School, close to the Swaziland border; and Matric pupils from Mahlatsi High School near Buffelspruit and Lugebhuta High School in Schoemansdal near Jeppes Reef — close to the Swaziland border — who had to leave during the course of last year because they had no documents.
Teachers, school governing body members and parents were adamant that the figures collated by the M&G were only the “tip of an iceberg”.
According to the department of basic education’s website, a child’s birth certificate, immunisation card and most recent school report are required when a parent applies to a school for admission.
Non-South African citizens must also produce a study permit, or a temporary or permanent residence permit, from the department of home affairs.
Twins Philisiwe and Philile Thole (19), who were in grade 12 at Lugebhuta High last year, and Sibusiso Mthombo (21), who was in grade 12 at Mahlatsi High, told the M&G how their worlds fell apart after they had to leave school before writing matric.
Speaking through Mthombo, the twins said they dropped out in May last year after the school informed them that they would not be allowed to write their final exams without a South African identity document.
Armed with their mother’s death certificate and identity document, the twins approached the department of home affairs last April and May to try to secure IDs, and were promised that officials would visit them at home, but the officials never arrived.
“It’s so painful staying at home while your friends are furthering their studies,” said the twins, who had set their sights on studying at university. They have been in the country since 2006 and completed their primary schooling in Schoemansdal in Mpumalanga.
Mthombo, who attended Mahlatsi High since grade 10, dropped out in February last year after he was told by a member of the school’s management that he would not be allowed to write the matric exam because he only had a Swaziland ID.
Mthombo says he has been living and studying in South Africa for six years. “It has crippled my future because right now I have nothing to do. I am just sitting at home,” he said.
Meanwhile, at least four pupils from Cromati Combined School who completed grade nine in 2014, and a further four from last year’s cohort, are sitting idle at home because high schools have refused to accept them because they don’t have the proper documents.
A teacher told the M&G that schools previously registered pupils who did not have the necessary documents, but that from last year this loophole was removed.
Four grade nine pupils at Cromati Combined School, including Martha Ngwenyama (17), and George Shilawule (18), fear they will face a similar fate next year.
Ngwenyama, who said she was born in South Africa of Mozambican parents, does not have a birth certificate. Her father is dead and her mother is a farm labourer.
With tears streaming down her cheeks, Ngwenyama said she had resigned herself to the fact that, because she did not have the correct documents, she would not be allowed to complete grades 10, 11 and 12. She said she wanted to be a traffic officer but, because she could not go to school, her mother wanted her to work as a counter assistant or cleaner at a local shop.
Ngwenyama’s classmate, George Shilawule, confirmed that his brother, France, completed grade nine at Cromati Combined School in 2014 but was refused admission to grade 10 in 2015 at another school.
“This is very painful and disheartening. I want to become a teacher after matric, but I know I won’t be able to achieve this dream because I can’t get into high school next year. I have no documents,” he said.
Issuing a plea to the home affairs department, Shilawule said: “Please assist us to get documents so that we can further our studies.”
Parents who live in Orlando in Komatipoort also spoke of their frustration at having their children barred from attending school. One parent estimated that there were more than 300 children in Orlando alone who were not in school because of red tape.
As the M&G interviewed parents, a seven-year-old, who should have been in grade one, washed the floor of his home while his parents were away. He was also looking after three toddlers. A neighbour confirmed he was not at school because he didn’t have the right papers. Speaking through an interpreter, parents said they were praying for home affairs to resolve the issue, otherwise they feared their children’s futures were doomed.
Among those praying for this miracle is Angel Shabangu (33), whose two boys, aged nine and seven, are not attending school because they don’t have South African IDs. She has been living in Komatipoort for 15 years.
Dumi Mnisi, chairperson of Cromati Combined School’s governing body, said the home affairs department had promised in the past to come with immigration officials and police to remedy the situation, but that nothing had happened.
“They always say the problem is parents don’t have documents, so it’s difficult to register the kids. But we don’t understand why because the kids are born here in South Africa.”
Said Mnisi: “They must come and do something about it; it’s long overdue now. We know they have this mentality that people who stay here are foreigners, but we are here for them.”
The school turned away a learner last week who had passed grade seven and was wanting to enrol in grade eight because she did not have a birth certificate.
“Each and every day, somebody is knocking at the door and we are unable to assist them because they don’t have documents. It’s very terrible; it’s having a negative impact because, at the end of the day, these children are going to grow up here and they do not have an education,” said Mnisi.
Another member of the governing body, Dephene Chitate, said: “I thought that by birth these children are South African. These same children are going to grow up and give us problems because they did not get a chance to try and save their lives.”
She claimed that home affairs officials were aware of this issue of foreigners battling to get documents so that their children could access schools but that they were “turning a blind eye to it”.
Home affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete referred queries to the department of basic education. “I don’t decide which schools allow who and for what reasons. If they say they want IDs, that’s the school’s policy. If they say they don’t want IDs, that’s the school’s policy.”
He said the basic education department decided how to enrol pupils.
MEC Mhaule said she was aware that this problem affected children of Mozambican and Swazi parents living in Piet Retief and Nkomazi.
Said Mhaule: “It’s a challenge. It needs education and home affairs to come together to see how best this can be solved. Even if we allow them [learners] to go through the system up to grade 12, in grade 12 they won’t be able to write the exams because they don’t have IDs.
“Some are very brilliant. You find they are the best learners in the school. The schools are crying: ‘Can’t you help this child get an ID? He’s the best learner in the school, but due to the lack of documentation the child may not be allowed in grade 12.’”
Mhaule said she would also be raising the matter with the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, during a council of education ministers meeting next week.
“It’s not good because we are responsible to provide education from grade R until grade 12, so if there are children that are roaming the streets, it affects us. Personally, I feel bad. That’s why I say we will engage [with] home affairs and see how best they can help us.”