Above the reception desk of the Lawyers for Human Rights office there is a picture of a bench with a plaque stating “South Africans Only”. It needed Saffiera, Health Protection Unit, to explain to me that this was referring back to the time of apartheid when public facilities such as park benches were allocated for use by whites or blacks only.
LHR’s aim is to reduce and prevent statelessness by offering direct legal services; advocating for law reform; conducting public awareness campaigns and offering training to lawyers and relevant government officials in the field. A stateless person is someone not considered a national by any state under the operations of its law – 1954 Convention on Status of Statelessness. Other pictures on the wall of the LHR office highlight examples of those struggling with statelessness. Elizabeth, was born in Lesotho, but moved to South Africa when three as her father is South African. She has a son born in South Africa to a documented South African father, but Home Affairs will not allow them to register the child’s birth because Elizabeth does not have an ID. She is quoted “There is a lot I want achieve but I can’t because I don’t have an ID. In years to come, Neo must go to school but they will want his birth certificate and he doesn’t have one”. Stateless persons often cannot enter into legally recognised marriage; work legally; own property; attend school or university; move freely or travel legally; vote or take part in government or access public services.
In South Africa nationality is primarily acquired by descent through one’s parents or grandparents. Unfortunately there are many children and adults for whom it is very difficult to establish their identity and thus acquire a nationality. These include orphaned or abandoned children, those born to stateless parents or refugees, those whose birth were not registered and those who lose or were never provided with documentation. Parents and grandparents who were born in rural communities during the apartheid era were often not registered at birth leaving their children at great risk of also becoming stateless. Home Affairs will often ask for the parent’s pass in lieu of their birth registration in order to establish their nationality. The pass was a compulsory document that all black Africans had to carry during apartheid and was used to restrict movement. Hardly a document one would hold onto as a keepsake.
The visit to the LHR office was exciting, not only because it was a chance to drive through Johannesburg’s Central Business District, something I wouldn’t have imagined doing six months ago. It also heralded the start of collaboration between LHR and the Thoughtful Path Munsieville. LHR has since trained volunteers on aspects of identifying and assisting stateless persons in South Africa and LHR and TPM have together visited homes in Mshenguville to survey stateless persons and persons at risk of statelessness. LHR will use the collected data to summarise the type and number of challenges faced in informal settlements for advocacy purposes – illustrating how the law is complex and not always correctly applied by Home Affairs or understood by those at risk. For TPM, the number of informed volunteers who can advise on how to minimize the risk of statelessness is growing. The collaboration will continue in the New Year and TPM will be working on strategies to inform the community on what they can do for themselves to ensure their children do not become or remain stateless. For example, it is most easy to get a child registered within the first 30 days from birth, as a child ages the amount of supporting evidence required before a child will be recognized and registered by Home Affairs grows. This advice also applies to the children of foreign parents born in South Africa. Although not entitled to South African citizenship they have the right to be registered and thus avoid some of the hardships that come with statelessness. On the picture, the slogan beneath the bench is “Let us keep moving forward, not backwards”.