Source: Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town
Yesterday’s Supreme Court judgement on the interpretation of South Africa’s Citizenship Act could result in a swathe of young people – those born and raised in South Africa with foreign parents – being able to apply to citizenship. We speak to Michelle,* who is hopeful that she can finally be recognized in South Africa, the only country she has ever known.
Upon meeting her, Michelle ‘seems South African’. Born and raised in Cape Town, Michelle went through South African primary and secondary school where she ‘learnt about our history and did everything South African learners do’. She later enrolled to study teaching at Stellenbosch University. But her university career was cut short in her second year when her documentation became an issue, rendering her ‘illegal’ in the only country she’s ever known. Now, at the age of 23, Michelle’s hopes have been raised by a recent Supreme Court Judgement on citizenship law in South Africa.
Stateless in South Africa
Michelle’s parents fled to South Africa from Angola in 1992. Having never had issues with documentation and using her South African birth certificate for schooling purposes, Michelle describes how she ‘felt truly South African’. In 2013, the South African government withdrew all Angolans’ refugee statuses. Michelle and her family were left undocumented as the Angolan authorities did not recognize them to be Angolan.
Suddenly, without documentation, Michelle had to drop out of her existence in South Africa. ‘I had to leave Stellenbosch University. All of my friends started graduating, finding jobs, moving on. I could not do anything – I was at home and I couldn’t find jobs or contribute to my household. I felt completely lost.’
Changes in Citizenship Law
In 2013, the South African Citizenship Act was amended to allow children born in South Africa – regardless of their parents’ nationality – to apply for South African citizenship upon turning eighteen. The applicant would have to provide a birth certificate, and prove that they had remained in South Africa during their life. ‘I kept googling this Citizenship Act,’ explains Michelle. ‘It spoke to me because it said, if you are born in South Africa to non-South African parents and you turn eighteen you can apply for South African citizenship.’ However, Michelle was not able to apply for South African citizenship, because the Department of Home Affairs claimed that this provision of the amended citizenship law was only applicable to those born after the change in law. In other words, only children turning eighteen in 2031 would be able to apply for South African citizenship through this new provision. Upon discovering this, Michelle’s hopes to legalize herself were dashed. ‘I was filled with anxiety because I could not see my future. I still had no way of proving my own identity.’