The old South African Identity Book.
Pretoria - I always knew where I belonged then my ID was stolen and I was nowhere and I was no one.

In my heart I am a South African. But for a short time I had nothing to prove this. This was terrifying, although I am in the lucky position to have an ID number and I am on the system. I was thus able to replace my most important document with relative ease.

Many people battle for years to try to prove who they are. I again realised it recently when desperate “faceless people” yet again had to turn to court to be able to belong somewhere

The Department of Home Affairs will not simply issue birth certificates and ID documents without being thoroughly convinced the person it issued one of these documents to was indeed South African.

But, on the other hand, even being a legal citizen can be hard to prove with often incompetent officials who do not really care to assist. Sometimes things are out of your hands, as in the case of a Cape Town father, who only realised five years ago that his now 11-year-old daughter’s birth was never registered.

This was not his fault. He made use of a private company when his daughter was born to register her birth.

He filled in the required documents and paid the fee. Ten days later the birth certificate was delivered at the hospital.

All went well and the father was even able to obtain a passport for his daughter. But to his shock he discovered five years ago that the birth certificate was fraudulent. This was when her passport had lapsed and he wanted to renew it.

Home Affairs told the father his daughter was not on their system.

This was the start of the father’s uphill battle to try to obtain a legal birth certificate for his daughter. He visited various Home Affairs offices and filled in the required documents.

The department questioned why the father did not have the proof of his application for the birth certificate 11 years ago. The father said he did not keep it. Who would after all these years?

The company did not respond and the hospital simply said it was not liable.

The child is meanwhile being home schooled, as no school wanted to accept her without any valid papers.

The father said it is a major problem, as his child is faceless. She cannot participate in any extramural activities and no school wanted to take her in. But the biggest problem is that without a birth certificate, she cannot obtain an ID document. Without this, she can basically not function as an adult, as she won’t be able to open a bank account or get a job.

The court ordered that Home Affairs had to tissue her with a birth certificate within 14 days.

In the same court a judge ordered that a boy, aged 12, be declared a South African citizen.

His parents managed to obtain this order with the help of Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR).

The department refused to register his birth, as in the case of the 11-year-old, despite his right to be recognised as a South African citizen. This had also left him effectively stateless.

Two unknown children had been registered under his mother’s name at Home Affairs. One child was born a month after him and the department refused to register two children born within a month of each other.

Despite her complaints to remove the other children, Home Affairs had not investigated the matter since 2007.

The child remained unregistered despite being a South African citizen by law. His school refused him to further attend without a birth certificate. His mother was forced to send him to KwaZulu-Natal, where a rural school agreed to accept him.

In this case the court also intervened and ordered the department to issue him with a birth certificate.

LHR said it was concerned that the department’s lack of service delivery was rendering children stateless.

It said there was an urgent need for an independent complaints body (an ombudsman) for the department. It said Home Affairs had a long way to go to realise that these children had rights.

A birth certificate is the first step to “belong”, as Frederik Ngubane, who was born in South Africa realised. He lost his birth certificate when the taxi he was in was hijacked. All his belongings, including his birth certificate, were stolen.

Home Affairs refused to issue him with a South African ID, as he was unable to provide documented evidence that he was born here. Ngubane said his only evidence that he was a South African was his birth certificate.

The court referred the matter back to Home Affairs for a proper investigation into his circumstances.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, statelessness is a reality for about two million people around the world. It is a sad reality with dire consequences for many.

* Zelda Venter is a senior court reporter for Pretoria News.