Education system fails undocumented learners

More than 13 000 undocumented learners wrote the 2019 matric exams.

This comes after the high court in Makhanda in December delivered a landmark judgment that no child will be barred from education because they are undocumented — even those who are viewed as illegal foreigners.

Documentation is difficult for local students to obtain when they come from communities in which government services, such as the department of home affairs, are not working properly. They are even harder to obtain for children who have had to flee problems such as war zones and natural disasters.

Of the 13 624 learners who wrote the 2019 matric exams without any form of identification, 8 900 passed. And, although 5 435 immigrant learners wrote matric, the
Mail & Guardian was unable to establish from the department of basic education how many of these immigrant learners were undocumented.

Umalusi — the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training — is responsible for issuing matric certificates. Umalusi spokesperson Lucky Ditaunyane told the M&G that learners without any documentation are issued with their matric certificate with the learner’s date of birth. He said the certificate is as good as a certificate with an ID number and that it can be used to apply for a job or admission to higher education.


But higher education institutions require a copy of an ID when applying for admission. Even the National Student Financial Aid Scheme requires a copy of an ID when applying for funding, which could pose a challenge for these learners and render their certificate useless if they want to study further.

In its judgment, the high court in Makhanda ruled that, where children are unable to provide identity documentation, schools must accept alternative proof of identity, such as an affidavit or sworn statement by the parent, caregiver or guardian of the learner.

It also said that schools were interdicted and restrained from removing or excluding any child — including foreign children, from school after they have been admitted just because they do not have an ID number — permit or passport, or have not produced any identification documents.

But department of basic education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga told the M&G this week that, even after the judgment, schools were turning learners without documentation away because they do not know how to admit learners who are not documented.

He said the department has had to intervene and remind principals that there is a judgment and, on the basis of that judgment, schools cannot deny learners who are not documented a place.

But Mhlanga said the judgment does not mean that parents must relax and not go to the department of home affairs to apply for documentation for their children, as not having an ID can disadvantage their children later in life.

He said the learners who wrote and passed matric, but do not have IDs, were practically excluded from the education system. “The impact of not having an ID is that wherever it is where you go you will be asked to produce an ID, so what are these learners going to do?” asked Mhlanga.

He said it was good that a court case had been won but the bottom line is that learners without documentation will forever be disadvantaged if their parents do not present themselves to the department of home affairs and receive assistance.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.
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