Source: Lawyers for Human Rights (South Africa)
The Constitutional Court yesterday handed down judgment in a case launched by Lawyers for Human Rights in 2016, but which started with negotiations with the Department of Home Affairs as far back as 2013. The applicants ask for one simple thing: dignity. Dignity, in this case, comes in the form of citizenship – the vessel for membership, belonging, safety and security in a world based on States.
The 5 applicants in Chisuse and Others v Director General, Department of Home Affairs and Another  were each born to a South African citizen parent, outside of the Republic of South Africa. Each applicant returned to South Africa at some point after their birth. Often, they returned to be with family, some were returned as children (without their parents) to stay with South African grandparents, some returned because it became apparent that they were not citizens of the country of their birth. The result was the same, they were living in South Africa, the country they are linked to by blood, without recognition of citizenship and without the option of citizenship anywhere else. They were made stateless in the country of their ancestors.
The applicants, represented by the Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) Statelessness Project, argued that the South African Citizenship Act must be unconstitutional if it excludes them from South African citizenship. The High Court agreed and made an order in 2018 declaring the applicants to be South African citizens and ordering the Department of Home Affairs to issue them with ID documents and birth certificates. The order of constitutional invalidity had to be confirmed by the Constitutional Court and was vehemently opposed by the Department until the bitter end. This despite at least two applicants being able to provide DNA evidence of their link to a South African parent. Two other applicants had government issued proof of their link to South African parents.
In a unanimous judgment, penned by Khampepe J, the court vindicated the applicants and said:
“Citizenship and equality of citizenship is therefore a matter of considerable importance in South Africa, particularly bearing in mind the abhorrent history of citizenship deprivation suffered by many in South Africa over the last hundred and more years. Citizenship is not just a legal status. It goes to the core of a person’s identity, their sense of belonging in a community and, where xenophobia is a lived reality, to their security of person.”
The Court upheld the applicants’ pre-existing right to citizenship in terms of the Citizenship Act. Instead of finding that the Act is unconstitutional, it followed the established principles of interpretation and found that the Act is capable of an interpretation which honours the spirit of the Constitution. The Court found that the applicants and those similarly placed (persons who are born to South African citizens abroad at any point before or after 2013) fall under section 2(1)(b) of the Citizenship Act and are therefore citizens by birth.
“Access to citizenship is not only at the core of a person’s dignity, it is crucial to the achievement of our Constitutional aims which includes recognising the injustices of our past and healing those divisions to create a united and democratic South Africa while freeing the potential of every person” said Liesl Muller, attorney for the applicants.
Our clients expressed overwhelming relief and hope when the Constitutional Court saw them and called them each by name, declaring them to be South African citizens. It may have been a 7-year legal battle, but for these South Africans it has been a life-long struggle.