/ 13 November 2020

Every child needs a birth certificate

A stateless woman watches her children play with her neighbour’s children near Brits, in North West Province. She was not registered at birth and as a result has been unable to prove her identity throughout her life. Since she does not legally exist, she was not able to register the birth of her children either. (Photo: Helene Caux)

Dear South Africans,

More than a million children are born in our country each year[1] and are issued birth certificates.  But estimates are that another 100 000 children are not registered at birth in South Africa [2], setting them up for a lifetime of exclusion, disadvantage, and de facto statelessness.  

Our progressive constitution provides the right to a name and nationality from birth for every child. It also ensures the right to primary education, to healthcare and other social services, to protection from exploitation and abuse — among numerous other important human rights.  A birth certificate is key to a nationality, identity, and to the opportunities and obligations that will be part of what it means to be South African for the rest of their lives.  We can take pride in these provisions for our children, and the steps and progress made by our leaders to put them in place. 

Without a birth certificate, a child is at risk of being stateless, which means no country will recognize him/her as a citizen. Often, such children are excluded from accessing the fundamental rights and opportunities we take for granted, and stateless children may be joining a long line of family members before them.  Because their parents and grandparents lacked identity documents, they are unable to prove their child’s right to a birth certificate, and with it, a nationality. 

As supporters of UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness, we call on our leaders and communities to remove barriers for these children.  Let us streamline and simplify birth registration processes.  Let us make sure that cost or distance from civil registration centres are not factors that condemn a child to be marginalised, and ultimately stateless.

Let us make sure that all parents understand their children’s rights and are supported to complete the steps needed to register their birth, regardless of their documentation status.

Let us ensure that safeguards against statelessness are in place to protect orphans and children found abandoned in South Africa.  Above all, let’s fulfil the promise to all children throughout this country that is laid out in our constitution.

South Africa’s future prospects lie with its children, and how well we prepare them for tomorrow.  By making sure that every child’s birth is registered, we can give them the best start in life: to seek health care, to be educated, to work legally, to pursue justice under the law, to vote, to marry, to provide for a family, and one day to register the birth of their own child. 

By doing so, we make it possible for them to play for their national sports team, to lead a municipality, a congregation, or a nation.  To become scientists, artists, writers, teachers, journalists or performers, with the potential to influence thought, or to shape our country’s history for the better, and ultimately that of our continent and the world.

Through birth registration, we have the opportunity to end one of the causes of statelessness forever.  Together, let’s do so.

Michael Clements, Acting National Director, Lawyers for Human Rights 

Nersan Govender, National Director, Legal Resource Centre 

Dr Fatima Khan, Associate Professor and Director of Refugee Rights Unit, University of Cape Town  

Siya Kolisi, South Africa Rugby Team Captain, United Nations Global Advocate

Penny Learmonth, Executive Director, Future Families 

Leanne Manas, SABC Presenter and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador

Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa Director, Human Rights Watch

Nomzamo Mbatha, Actor, Producer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador 

Steve Miller, CEO, Save the Children South Africa 

Sindisiwe Moyo, Advocate for Children’s Rights, The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town 

Ethel Munyai, Programme Manager, Social Services and Migrant Support Unit, The Outreach Foundation

Karabo Ozah, Director, Centre for Child Law, University of Pretoria 

Ann Skelton, Professor of Law, University of Pretoria, Member: UN Committee on the Rights of the Child 

Tim Smith, Regional Director for Southern Africa, Jesuit Refugee Services 

Valentin Tapsoba, Director of the Regional Bureau for Southern Africa 

Archbishop Bhuti Tlhagale, Southern African Bishops’ Conference 

Hanif Vally, Executive Director, Foundation for Human Rights  

Shalane Yuen, Executive Director, Trevor Noah Foundation

Leonard Zulu, Representative, UNHCR South Africa Representation Office 

Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director, Amnesty International South Africa

Jacob van Garderen, Director, The Public Interest Practice

Dr Astrid Samuels, Project Medical Referent, Doctors Without Borders (MSF)

Arnold Tsunga, Chairperson, Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network

Johanna Kistner, Clinical Psychologist and Director, Sophiatown Community Psychological Services

Piyushi Kotecha                 CEO The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation 

South Africa is a party to the 1989 United Nations  Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is committed to becoming party to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.   

[1] See: http://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0305/P03052018.pdf

[2] Based on estimate: 86.4% of all births having been registered, see the above pdf