Johannesburg - Elize Marcha O’Brien, 47, cannot hold back her tears as she recounts how a complete stranger - Khaled Elshahhat Aly - ruined her life.
The mother of four has never set eyes nor spoken to the Egyptian, yet official records reflect that the two tied the knot in February 2006 - and their lives have since been intertwined.
A victim of a fraudulent marriage scam, O’Brien speaks of heart-wrenching pain and how her life spiralled out of control since the discovery - even affecting her children, some of whom are registered as Aly’s. Her love life has not been spared either.
She has been trying to annul her illicit marriage to Aly and marry her partner Hendry Kelly, whom she met in 2007.
“We should have been married a long time ago had it not been for this fraudulent marriage I found myself in. It has messed up my life. I worry about what would happen to my children and my boyfriend if I were to die. It means my body will be locked in a mortuary until they find this Khaled person,” declares O’Brien, amid sobs.
O’Brien’s previous partner and father of her older children ended their relationship on discovering the fraudulent marriage, on suspicion that she’d been unfaithful to him.
“We discovered the marriage when I went to change my third child’s surname to mine because she had been registered in my then partner’s surname. A Home Affairs officer said we couldn’t make the changes because I was married to this man from Egypt, and that he was required to confirm the changes I wanted to make. I was shocked. My partner at the time suspected I was cheating on him,” she says.
Since the discovery, O’Brien has been doing everything in her power to nullify her marriage to Aly.
On advice from Home Affairs, she opened a case at her local police station as proof that she has had no relationship with the Egyptian. Ever since then, a big part of her life is spent following up on her case with both the police and Home Affairs, desperate for a solution.
“I suspect this happened after I lost my ID in 2006. Every time I go to Home Affairs to find out how far they are with resolving this matter, I’m told it is still being investigated,” says O’Brian.
For now, her dream wedding to Kelly has to wait until the chapter with Aly is finally addressed, and closed. She commends her partner for being patient and supportive throughout this ordeal.
“How do you react when you learn that your children are using another man’s surname? This is corruption from Home Affairs. This man’s surname even appears on my child’s birth certificate. It makes me so angry,” declares Kelly, while trying to console his emotional partner - further revealing that he learned of this marriage from the beginning of their relationship.
O’Brien is one of thousands of South African women who are fraudulently married to foreigners seeking citizenship in this country. On average, Home Affairs is notified of at least 2000 each year.
Expunging these marriages is not an easy process.
Recently, Wits University’s Law Clinic - which represents O’Brien and other victims of fraudulent marriages - announced its intention to bring a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Home Affairs for its apathy in addressing the matter.
The Law Clinic called on other women who have been trapped in these marriages to come forward.
This is the reason Professor Philippa Kruger from the Family, Gender and Child Unit at the Wits Law clinic has dedicated her time to help women like O’Brien. As of this week, revealed Kruger, Wits Law Clinic had signed 30 clients requiring their assistance to expunge their fraudulent marriages. Kruger blames Home Affairs for failing to help these women.
“In the past, Home affairs has not been co-operative. They have not provided a proper service to our clients. Our clients have been extremely frustrated, others have stayed for 15 years in these marriages,” explained an equally frustrated Kruger.
“Sometimes these marriages are facilitated by Home Affairs employees in exchange for money. I think the department is aware of that,” alleged Kruger.
Thami Swartbooi is one of the lucky women to have been “freed” from the strain caused by fraudulent marriages, following an intervention by Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi that ended her 12-year-long anguish and stand-off with the department’s officials.
Although happy that the marriage has finally been expunged, Swartbooi’s problems are far from over.
“I have two children and my second child was never registered. The state doesn’t know he exists. However, Home Affairs records say I have two other children - children I’ve never met,” said Swartbooi.
Following the diligent work by the law clinic and a growing media interest in these marriages, Home Affairs finally acknowledged them to be a problem.
Motsoaledi visited the law clinic to apologise to the victims, said Kruger.
Mariam Matlokgele is one of the 30 women who approached the Wits Law Clinic for help. She has been married to an unknown man from Mozambique since 1998 and only stumbled across this information while applying for her child’s birth certificate. Since then, her life has been on hold. She can’t open store accounts or even apply for credit, and is most concerned about her children’s future. She suspects her former employer, who confiscated her ID, is responsible for this marriage.
To help restore the lives of these women, Kruger says Wits Law Clinic is working closely with Legal Aid South Africa, assisting them to reach affected women.
Speaking to Sunday Independent this week, Legal Aid South Africa’s national legal manager Hanoneshea Hendricks said its national footprint allowed it to reach more affected women with the aim of resolving their fraudulent marriages through the partnership with the Wits Law Clinic.
Spokesperson for the department, Siyabulela Qoza, admitted that thousands of women were duped annually, and that the department was working closely with both the Wits Law Clinic and Legal Aid South Africa to find a solution. He further advised South Africans to apply for smart card IDs as a protective measure, as they weren’t as easy to duplicate.
“We encourage people to move to smart card IDs to avoid this occurrence. On average, we get 2000 instances of fake marriages a year, and that is quite a high number. Of these, 1160 were expunged, 646 were referred to court and 326 are still being processed.”