South Africa’s stateless children: ‘I thought I would be shot’
Children, often undocumented and unaccompanied, risk the dangerous crossing into South Africa in hope of a better life.
According to the World Bank, in 2017 there were approximately four million migrants in South Africa. Of those, 309,000 were refugees or asylum seekers.
Save the Children estimates that at least 30 percent of the refugees and migrants who enter South Africa are children. Many of them are unaccompanied and undocumented, the highest proportion globally.
According to a 2019 study by the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, an advocacy group for refugees and migrants, seven out of every 10 foreign children in state care in South Africa are undocumented – they have no birth certificate, identification papers or passport. Many have never had their births registered.
These children are at risk of becoming stateless, meaning no country acknowledges them as citizens.
On a day-to-day basis, they have difficulty going to school and accessing healthcare and public services.
In the first of a four-part series exploring the lives of undocumented child migrants and refugees in South Africa, Obert Makaza, 20, shares his story.
‘The day I decided to cross, I crossed running’
Obert Makaza cannot remember if he was seven or nine years old when he risked his life to cross the border from Zimbabwe into South Africa, alone and on foot.
Now aged 20, he says all he can be sure of is that he had not yet turned 10 when he navigated the Limpopo riverbed that separates the two countries. It had taken him some time to build up the courage, he recalls.
He had caught a train from Harare with other children he met on the streets, but became separated from them when they reached Beitbridge, a border town in the province of Matabeleland South in Zimbabwe.
Ninety percent of refugees and migrants cross into South Africa via the country’s northern border, and Beitbridge is the busiest crossing.
“I stayed there for two weeks before I decided to cross,” he says. “And on the day that I decided to cross, I crossed running.”
Obert clearly remembers the sound of gunfire as he ran; the sound of his feet and the bullets on the loose sand.
“I thought I was going to get shot, because they did shoot. But I don’t know if they were shooting at other people or at me because there was all sorts of chaos.”
The border between South Africa and Zimbabwe is always chaos, he adds.
“I just ran. When I got to the South African side I ran to the taxi rank. There someone gave me a lift to Musina.”
A place to call home
South Africa’s northern-most town, Musina, is a popular entry point to South Africa. On the pavements, umbrellas cast long shadows across an assortment of wares laid out by informal traders in the sweltering heat. As the sun sets, some cross back into Zimbabwe, returning the next day to continue trading.
The N1 highway, which cuts through the centre of town, is the main route connecting Zimbabwe to the bustling border town and the rest of the country.
Leading south, the road eventually ends at the entrance to Cape Town’s upmarket luxury mall and tourist destination, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Just 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) away is the Homestead Projects for Street Children, which runs a number of intervention projects for young people. One of these is a care home for homeless and undocumented minors at risk of statelessness.
It was here, in an unassuming white building, that Obert eventually found a place to call home, although that would not happen for several years. And it is here, today, that he sits on a couch and explains why he fled Zimbabwe.
“My father had more than four wives – my mother was one of them,” he says. Originally from the Kadoma District, at the heart of Zimbabwe’s mining region, she was the least favoured of his father’s wives.
The first time his mother left, she took Obert, then a baby, with her. But she soon returned. The next time, she left her son behind.
He does not know where she went or what happened to her.
Then, when his father died, Obert was sent to live with relatives.
His memories of those first few years of his life are vague. But, he says, the bullying and abuse he endured at the hands of his relatives soon became unbearable.
The first time he ran away, he was six years old.
I ran away multiple times, but every time they found me, and they beat me. So I wanted to be away - much further away - so that even if they looked for me, they wouldn't get me.
“I ran away multiple times, but every time they found me, and they beat me. So I wanted to be away – much further away – so that even if they looked for me, they wouldn’t get me.”
While living on the streets of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, he had heard stories about South Africa and the opportunities it offered – money, education, freedom and adventure.
So, when some street friends suggested going there, Obert saw an opportunity to escape.
“I just wanted to have a normal life,” he says.
“Deep down in my heart, it was about getting away from my family.”
In the back of a truck
In Musina, Obert was told to go to the refugee reception centre to get permission to stay in the country.
“I was so happy,” he says, “because I thought just getting here was the hardest part.”
After that, he believed life would be easier. But without identification papers, a passport or birth certificate, Obert’s first few years in South Africa were difficult.
The Department of Social Development in Musina placed him in a children’s care centre in Venda – two hours away by road – and for the first time in his life, he was enrolled in school.
“I stayed there for a while,” he says, “but then I absconded.”
He laughs sheepishly as he explains that he has run away from every place he has ever been, apart from Homestead.
Next, he travelled south on the N1 highway, stopping in Polokwane for a while and then living on the jacaranda-lined streets of Pretoria.
The thought of not having food or shelter did not faze him, he says, adding that “it was part of life already”.
Obert eventually found himself back on the N1 highway, hiding in the back of a truck with some other young boys, as it made its way to Cape Town.
“We drove all night, all day, all night, and we kept exchanging different trucks until we got to Colesberg,” he recalls.
Here, the boys, not yet teenagers, were picked up by the police. They slept in the police station that night but left the next day on the pretence of finding something to eat.
“We didn’t come back. We found another truck,” he says.
‘It feels like you don’t exist’
After disembarking in the Western Cape, the boys walked for hours through the Great Karoo, a desert area known for its arid air, rocky landscapes and extreme temperatures, before reaching a service station in the small town of Beaufort West. The manager took them to a shelter in Cape Town.
“I also ran away there,” Obert says.
In Cape Town, he lived on the streets, where he says he was harassed every day.
“The police – they were always on my case,” he says.
The last time they detained him, he was sure he was in real trouble. Instead, a social worker was called and he was taken to the Homestead Shelter. That was in 2010, almost five years after he had left his relatives’ home.
“Since I have been in Homestead I’ve never run away,” Obert says.
At the shelter, he has been able to do things he loves, like rock climbing and sailing.
“I sometimes watch videos of luxury boats … it costs other people a lot of money, but I’ve been doing that for free,” he reflects.
Despite excelling at it, sailing competitively lost its appeal after he learned that he could not progress further as to get his skipper’s licence, he needed some form of identification.
Having no official documents has proved a major hindrance in other ways as well.
He says the police stopped him on his way home from rock climbing practice one day. “They started questioning me, pushing me against the car, kicking me with those big boots. I know that without the documents that could have defended me, there is nothing that I could use against them.”
“Without documents, you miss so much. It feels like you don’t exist at all.” His forehead creases. “For you, you know you are a human being, but for them, you are just something that is useless. You don’t exist.”
In 2018, Obert completed high school. A birth certificate is normally required to sit final exams but social workers were able to intervene on his behalf.
He says he would like to go into business and is particularly interested in artificial intelligence, perhaps relating to agriculture, believing that implementing new technologies to age-old practices like agriculture can lead to the enrichment of Africa and Africans.
“If I just have the resources, I know that I can do it,” he says. But there are other practical issues arising from statelessness.
When Obert was younger, getting married, registering his own children, driving a car or applying for university did not cross his mind. Now, he knows his future and safety are in question without the pieces of paper most take for granted.
“Today, when I walk out there without a passport, I will be vulnerable to the police,” he says.
He also believes he may be at risk of being attacked. “South Africans who kill other Africans and beat other Africans – they can do anything and I wouldn’t have a say. I may be able to stand up for myself physically but not all the time.”
Thankfully for Obert, help came from Dream Higher, the rock-climbing academy he joined in Cape Town.
“I told them, ‘I am stateless, is there any way that you can help me?'” he explains.
Together, they raised the funds for Obert to travel safely back to Zimbabwe, where he finally managed to register his birth, obtain an identity document and apply for a passport, which he still does not have.
“I was really not happy to have the Zimbabwean citizenship,” he laughs. “I’ve been here in South Africa and lived here my whole life.”
The realisation that the very country he fled more than a decade ago was the only place that could legitimise him was a bitter pill to swallow.
“But to have citizenship is a very important thing,” he reflects, “so I am thankful.”