by Candice Nolan
A number of South Africans are falling through the cracks as there is no policy in place to deal with statelessness. They are unable to prove their citizenship and risk deportation, sometimes on a whim.
We look at the sad story of Alpha Mntambo, a Zulu speaking man who grew up in South Africa but who was deported to Zimbabwe where he is now a stranger.
On Monday, we told the story of Khumbulani Frederik Ngubane and his battle to be recognised as a citizen.
“I am not a refugee. I am not a citizen. I am not a passport holder or a foreigner. I am just stateless; I do not belong anywhere. Let us just say in a physical sense I exist, but on paper I do not exist.”
The United Nations estimates that there are some 10 million stateless people worldwide. The South African law is largely silent on what to do with stateless people within our borders.
“We have written articles for different online forums and then sometimes people comment like “send them to Mars!” then I think but wow that sums it up isn’t it , because like you do not belong anywhere on earth, do you have to go to Mars? That is your only choice! Uhm so it is like crazy, it is like really ridiculous,” says Statelessness Project at Lawyers for Human Rights’ Liesl Muller.
Being stateless can happen to anyone
Twenty years ago in South Africa there was a process where citizens could apply for a late registration of birth in cases where they were not registered as children.
“One client went to Mozambique for a job, he is an electrician and then came back. On his passport his second name is listed as Anton. And the official said Anton is not a South African name and she just blocked him on the system and it is linked to your bank accounts so he had no money, he lost his job,” says Muller remembering one particular client.
Early last year, there was a flare up of xenophobic related violence in South Africa and in response the police and the South African National Defence Force were called in as part of Operation Fiela, ostensibly to root out criminal elements.
An estimated fifteen thousand so called “illegal immigrants” were arrested and deported. Even South Africans of a darker persuasion had reason to be afraid.
“I am a true Zulu, 100% but I’m scared. Even though I’m sitting in this taxi, I am afraid. I used to walk around here but because of my dark complexion they might confuse me for a foreigner. The police are known for beating first and asking questions later,” says one South African citizen fearing for his life.
Alpha Mntambo, who can only speak Zulu, was not so lucky. With no documents to prove his identity, Mntambo was arrested in June last year. Lawyers for Human Rights, who do immigration detention monitoring, went to visit him.
“He was crying all throughout the interview we did with him because he just did not know what to do,” says Muller.
Mntambo was born in Zimbabwe on 4 April 1979. All he knows is that his father is South African and that his mother’s name is Beauty Ngwenya.
“He could only speak Zulu so he spoke to my colleague, I don’t speak Zulu, and he was explaining to my colleague that he thinks his mother is from Zimbabwe and she brought him from somewhere but he was a child. And then she abandoned him here and he grew up here in Johannesburg. He is South African for all intents and purposes, he knows nothing about Zimbabwe. I mean he doesn’t even remember the country.”
Zimbabwean consular officials visited Mntambo at Lindela Repatriation Centre. “They were like well, we don’t know him. We can’t verify his citizenship. We don’t have record of him. We don’t know anything about him,” says Muller.
And because he cannot prove his father’s citizenship, Mntambo is not recognised as a South African citizen. When LHR did a follow-up visit, they could find no trace of Alpha Mntambo.
“We asked the court to make an order saying that Home Affairs must tell us where he is and when we got to court, they had deported him to Zimbabwe just because his mom might have been from there. No relatives there, he knows nobody.”
The High Court in Johannesburg declared the deportation unlawful and demanded a report from Home Affairs.
“Where did they take him, who did they hand him over with, does he have documents where he is now? Like where is he?! And they were supposed to file that like a month after and they have never filed it and that was last year June. So now I have never seen him again he is like somewhere in Zimbabwe without phone, without money, nobody knows where he is.”
Home Affairs was unavailable for comment at the time of broadcast. If you would like to help end statelessness you could sign the petition on the UN website. You can find it atwww.unhcr.org/ibelong.