Education advocacy organisation Equal Education has raised concerns over the number of undocumented children in South Africa being denied access to the South African schooling system. Globally, about one fourth of children younger than five have not had their births registered and, in sub-Saharan Africa, only 43% of births are registered, according to the South Africa Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) Some countries in the region have as little as 3% birth registration, and even South Africa, with the highest rate of birth registration on the continent, has an estimated unregistered population of 5%.
“When we talk about undocumented learners, we talk about all children who don’t have birth certificates and who, as a result, are denied entrance to schools. These include South African children, children born outside of South Africa or children born inside of South Africa but from foreign parents,” said Pilasande Mkuzo from the Equal Education Law Centre.
In principle, at least, all children in South Africa are meant to be attending school.
“The constitution of the country is the supreme law of the land and it guarantees everyone the right to basic education. It doesn’t say South Africans…it says everyone, and this includes undocumented learners.”
Mkuzo says, however, that while basic education is a right afforded to all, the Department of Education requires all children to have their birth certificates in order to attend school.
With that said, there are ways to enrol learners before their documentation is organised.
“The national admission policy for ordinary schools empowers schools to conditionally admit learners without the required documents – given that the parents make reasonable efforts to get the documentation within three months of the conditional admission of the child. It also relies on the national circular of the Department of Basic Education, which allows schools to extend the conditional admission period from three months to a maximum of 12 months.”
Provincial Manager of Home Affairs in the Western Cape, Yusuf Simons says that the Department of Home Affairs is well accustomed to dealing with a broad range of circumstances relating to undocumented children and babies. He indicated that the department has several mechanisms in place to assist anyone facing challenges, but he also explained that mothers and fathers have a degree of responsibility in these issues as well.
“When a child is born, the child must be registered within 30 days – that is the law,” he said.
“We have officials at hospitals who can issue the birth certificate on the day you are born. If you are under the age of 15, you can even have one issued within one day…The problem comes with negligence from parents who don’t register their children for whatever reason.”
“If you want to register your child after the 30 days, there’s a screening committee that needs to do an investigation, conduct interviews and verify documents. That process can then also be finalised within 30 days – however, those birth certificates are only issued on the day that all documents are submitted by the parents of the children.”
Simons says that the Department of Home Affairs is well aware of the challenges parents and learners face in relation to documentation and that they have dedicated teams addressing the issue throughout the province.
“We have about ten committees who move throughout the Western Cape, just to prioritise cases of children without birth certificates,” he said.
“Children must be in school, so we aren’t going to refuse a child…but when it come’s to foreigners it’s a bit more difficult. The child gets their identity and permit linked to the mother and father. If the parents are in South Africa on any type of permit, they must apply for study visas for their children. When the adult applies for their visa, they apply for the visa of the child as well.
It’s the responsibility of any person moving to another country to make sure that the visa remains valid. There aren’t shortcuts to a study visa because it’s one of the mechanisms we control.”
For parents urgently requiring a birth certificate for their child, the Department of Home Affairs would need to see a maternity certificate. If the parents are not in possession of a maternity certificate, they need to return to the hospital the child was given birth at and request one from that facility.
For children who need birth certificates but who are already enrolled in school, the Department of Home Affairs would need to receive a letter from the school, confirming that the child is enrolled and attending.
Alternatively, Simons explained that biological mothers need to carry their IDs and take them to the Department of Home Affairs, along with their child. If the mother of the child is deceased, someone from the maternal side of the family needs to accompany the child with their own ID. If the mother or someone from the maternal side doesn’t have an ID, the child cannot be registered.
Accordingly, if the mother needs to apply for a new ID, she can do so while applying for her child’s birth certificate.
“What we’ll do is take the application for the mother and child at the same time. Then, we’ll finalise the ID for the mother and thereafter the birth certificate for the child,” said Simons.
“If the mother doesn’t have an ID, we cannot register the child.”