More than a quarter of a million children under the age of 15 are undocumented in South Africa as the Department of Home Affairs has yet to issue them with birth certificates.
The shocking figure of an approximately 258 000 backlog in the registration of births was revealed when Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi responded in writing to a question in Parliament.
An 11-year-old girl and her 18-months-old cousin are still without birth certificates despite department promises in January.
Several visits by their guardian and grandfather, Zolani Hermans, to the Home Affairs office in Bellville and social workers have yet to produce results.
“Without a birth certificate you become a non-entity and a stateless person even though you are a South African,” said South African Human Rights Commissioner Chris Nissen.
Both children were born at Cofimvaba hospital in the Eastern Cape but later moved to stay with their grandparents in Mfuleni, Cape Town.
The family applied for a birth certificate in 2019 for the granddaughter but was instead issued a notice of birth certificate.
The document is not accepted when applying for a social grant or when required as proof of identity.
The Children's Institute at the University of Cape Town took up the matter on behalf of Hermans.
Senior researcher Paula Proudlock said: “It appears that the one child’s birth certificate application is stuck at the Home Affairs office in Bellville, in the ‘verification’ stage.
“Once Home Affairs receives an application for a late registration of birth, all the supporting documents need to be verified. One of these documents is the maternity certificate/proof of birth notice from the health facility where the child was born.
“In this case it’s a health facility in the Eastern Cape (Cofimvaba). Home Affairs say they have tried to call the health facility but the facility is not picking up the phone and they cannot get through and that is the reason as to why the application has not progressed.”
When the Weekend Argus called the Cofimvaba hospital, an official answered the phone in less than two minutes.
The institute was now planning to escalate the matter.
“If the department does not come up with a plan to handle the matter, the application will just sit in a file at the Bellville office for many years,” said Proudlock.
An Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) Member of Parliament who raised the question, Liezl van der Merwe, expressed concern about the implications of not having a birth certificate.
“Children without birth certificates are at an increased risk of exclusion from government grants and therefore being more likely to suffer from multiple dimensions of poverty,” she said.
Motsoaledi indicated several reasons for the delay in processing late birth registrations including cultural practices, a “laissez faire” attitude of mothers, clients not responding when invited for interviews and lack of supporting documents.
However, Proudlock also blamed Home Affairs’ laws, policies and practices that tended to treat most applications for late registration of birth with suspicion, especially if the applicant was not the mother of the child.
“The challenges could be resolved if Home Affairs and Social Development were to change their laws, policies and practice to make registration of birth more accessible and responsive to the lived realities of families in South Africa.”
Approximately four million children in the country lived with relatives.
“Many children and parents do not live in the same province but this does not mean the parents have abandoned their children. They are often migrant workers.
“The process requires supporting proof that many families cannot obtain and multiple trips to schools, chiefs, children’s court, social workers, home affairs they cannot afford. As a result, many parents and relatives are discouraged or forced to abandon the process due to a lack of income,” Proudlock said.
Nissen cautioned that should a child die without a birth certificate, it would also be difficult to bury them.
“While we commend Motsoaledi for often taking responsibility for what happens in his department, we need speedy action in this regard, even if it means working overtime. A birth certificate is a constitutional right,” said Nissen.
Despite numerous attempts to get a response from the national Department of Home Affairs officials, they failed to do so.
On October 4 spokesperson David Hlabane said the request was receiving attention.
Subsequent reminders went unanswered.