The faces behind SA’s citizenship nightmare

Florette and Nsongoni Mulowayi arrived in South Africa from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as refugees in the early 2000s and subsequently became permanent residents.

Despite holding a South African identity document and a BSc degree from the University of Johannesburg, Florette was frequently discriminated against by the private sector when seeking work. In one case, she made it through all the interview stages for a job in a laboratory at a large pharmaceutical company but the offer was rescinded at the last minute because, the human resources department told her, the position was open to South African citizens only.

She was forced to take odd part-time jobs unrelated to her qualification until she finally found employment at a private school teaching technology and science.

Her husband, Nsongoni, is a medical doctor who qualified in the DRC. He fought for many years to be admitted for specialisation, as many programmes were not interested in training non-citizens. Even after he eventually specialised in maternal and child health at the University of Cape Town and in HIV clinical management at the University of the Witwatersrand, hospitals refused to employ him because of his foreign qualification.

After applying to register with the Health Professions Council of South Africa and waiting for more than a year for a response, he was left with no choice but to accept a job offer in Lesotho.

Having been discriminated against for years on account of being non-citizens, the Mulowayis finally decided to apply for South African citizenship in 2015. As the DRC does not permit dual citizenship, they were told by home affairs that their application would only be compliant if they provided proof of having renounced their Congolese citizenship. They followed these instructions, which rendered them stateless, and then submitted their application for naturalisation.

In the past, children born in South Africa to permanent resident parents were automatically granted South African citizenship, which was the case for their first two children.

But because of changes in the Citizenship Act, this is no longer the case. Their third child, Gaddiel, was thus born stateless in 2017, as his parents were no longer Congolese citizens and, as the child of permanent residents, he was no longer entitled to South African citizenship.

Home affairs refused to issue Gaddiel with a South African birth certificate or identity number, which put his life in danger when he developed jaundice and could not be registered for admission at a public hospital. He was finally admitted when the hospital agreed to register him under his mother’s identity number.

A year later, the couple was informed that their citizenship application had been rejected, as they had not been permanent residents for 10 years.

This regulation was in clear contradiction to section 5(1)(c) of the South African Citizenship Act 88 of 1995, which states that a permanent resident is eligible to naturalise as a South African citizen after having been ordinarily resident in the country for five years.

Now stateless and with a baby lacking documentation, they took home affairs to the high court to challenge its unlawful 10-year regulation and won. But Gaddiel’s citizenship status may still be in flux and the Mulowayis case could go all the way to the Constitutional Court.

In February 2016, the home affairs minister, Malusi Gigaba, clumsily decided to emulate the type of mandatory citizenship ceremonies held in many Western countries. When copying and pasting this model, he neglected to incorporate two of the most essential aspects, which are the importance of holding such ceremonies frequently and in many cities.

Unlike my application and that of the Mulowayi family, Raj and Neeta Gusain’s application for naturalisation was conditionally approved last May. They were instructed to renounce their Indian citizenship in time for their naturalisation ceremony, as India does not permit dual citizenship. Tragically, Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet reshuffles led to home affairs postponing their ceremony for more than a year.

Finding themselves stateless and with no date set for a new citizenship ceremony, Raj was unable to obtain either an Indian or a South African travel document to visit his dying mother in New Delhi. She died without being able to say goodbye to her now stateless son, daughter-in-law and grandson.

By discriminating against legal immigrant job seekers who are not South African citizens, the private sector is giving them no choice but to apply for naturalisation. However, if a permanent resident applies for citizenship but happens to have the misfortune of being born in a developing country that does not permit dual citizenship, they are likely to find themselves stateless because of Gigaba’s indifference to immigrants who are not politically connected.

Dan Brotman is an American-born Israeli entrepreneur based in Johannesburg. He applied for South African citizenship in April 2016, was denied, and is still waiting for his application to be finalised

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