Undocumented minors – The life and death struggle for education

Undocumented minors – The life and death struggle for education

By Robyn Wolfson Vorster and Talia Jade Magnes.

School is out, and as the class of 2017 await their final results, two young women will be conspicuously absent. One a South African, the other Congolese, they had little in common other than the tragic way that they died. Both committed suicide after being denied an opportunity to write matric.

When Brenda Sithole killed herself in July this year, her death called into question the South African government’s policy of not allowing undocumented minors to write matric. The Department of Education, in conjunction with Home Affairs, seems to have justified the policy of forcing undocumented children out of the school system by citing scarce resources in education, resources that the government does not want to share with foreigners.

But using documentation to weed out foreigners is a flawed approach because of the number of South Africans who are also undocumented. Brenda was one of them. There was no justifiable reason for her not having an ID number. Brenda’s mother had simply neglected to register her birth. She then moved in with her boyfriend, leaving Brenda to be raised by family members. Circumstances intervened, and after Brenda’s mother passed away, the family was unable to navigate the lengthy and adversarial process for the late registration of her birth (despite having proof that Brenda’s mother was a South African citizen and that she was deceased, so not available to help her obtain her documentation). The delay proved deadly for Brenda.

In late July, schools were instructed to send undocumented learners home and not allow them to return unless or until they could provide valid documents. Instructed is a polite term; some principals, who will not speak on the record, claim that they were threatened and told they would lose their jobs if they continued to allow undocumented learners into their schools. In her suicide note, poignantly cut into the shape of a heart, Brenda explained, “I did not have a future even [though] I had big dreams… I was [going to] be kicked out of school because I did not have the rights like having an ID to show where I belong.” Her final words were: “Am sorry. Am just useless…”

Brenda’s tragic death occurred just months after the death of another young woman. Amani* was Congolese. Having survived her war-torn homeland, she fled to South Africa to pursue a better life. But despite having valid asylum seeker documentation, she was not permitted to write matric.

She is not alone. A short, animated movie, A Precious life in a scary world, created by the Three2Six project, about the lives of migrant children in South Africa, graphically illustrates the problems experienced by asylum seekers who try to obtain the correct documents from Home Affairs so that they can go to school.

Amani’s story is noteworthy because not only was she a valid asylum seeker, she also had a court order placing her in state care. As a ward of the state, she should have been entitled to education. But the blanket requirement to present the requisite documentation – which is seemingly impossible to obtain – or to leave school, was applied to her, and to many others placed in care by the court. Without the opportunity for education, she, like Brenda, despaired of having a future, and sadly chose to end her life.

Although not all resort to suicide, for children placed in Child and Youth Care Centres, but lacking the right documentation, the crushing reality of not being able to get a formal education has become the norm. Eli* is one of the affected children. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eli and his brother were brought to South Africa by their parents, and abandoned with an aunt when they returned to the DRC. The aunt cared for them for a while before leaving them with a grandmother, who later passed away. After travelling to South Africa, being abandoned repeatedly and experiencing the trauma of the loss of another family member, Eli’s brother died. Shortly thereafter, the court determined that Eli was in need of care, and placed him in a Child and Youth Care Centre in Benoni. Eli had an asylum document that was issued when he arrived in the country. But, as a result of him being repeatedly abandoned by family members, no one renewed his papers, so he is currently undocumented.

Eli was also part of the class of 2017, but halfway through his matric year, the principal of his school told him that he had two weeks to get documentation, or he would not be able to return to school to write matric. This occurred despite the state court order placing him in care. His Child and Youth Care Centre persuaded the school to allow him to write matric, but because he is undocumented, he will not be given a matric certificate.

Despite this, Eli has worked hard and is determined to become somebody. He has a disability: one of his legs is quite significantly longer than the other. Nevertheless, he has found a passion in personal training, and wants to help other children with disabilities like his. He now plans to do a course in personal training, which his Child and Youth Care Centre will facilitate. Although this story may have a happy ending (certainly happier than Amani’s), the government’s decision to deny this child the right to get a matric certificate, even though he has completed his schooling, seems incredibly short-sighted.

But while it is hard for the government to justify withholding education from children who are wards of the state, there are still many who argue that the country has no obligation to provide secondary education to migrants and refugees. They state that South Africa has more than enough of its own citizens with a right to education, and in need of government assistance. It is an argument that may garner some sympathy. However, the Department of Education is increasingly preventing undocumented children (which again, includes a large amount of South African children who have not been registered and don’t have an ID number), from obtaining primary education too.

Now, due to the online registration system, children cannot even enter Grade 1 without documentation. This despite the constitution stating that “everyone has a right to basic education” 29(1)(a), a legal right that is echoed in the Education Act. In addition, the Children’s Act recognises all children under 18, regardless of their country of origin or documentation status. However, the Education Act also states that institutions have the right to request valid documentation for admission. It is a requirement that seems, bewilderingly, to trump the other legislative imperatives. The upshot is that countless children are falling through this legal loophole.

One of them is Tyra*, for whom the right to basic education seems a distant hope. Tyra is from Zimbabwe and also a ward of the state. From birth, she lived with her mother and three siblings in the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg. But, due to the circumstances there, she and her siblings were removed from their mother’s care. Her eldest sibling was born in Zimbabwe, but Tyra and two of her other siblings were born in South Africa, and have handwritten South African birth certificates (that is, birth certificates issued to the children of foreign parents that do not include a South African ID number). Tyra’s two elder siblings were placed in a Child and Youth Care Centre in Benoni, and have been lucky enough to get into a local school, although they will also not get any formal certificate for completing school.

Tyra and her younger sibling were placed at a different Child and Youth Care Centre and attended its nursery school. Next year she is due to start grade 1. But, the online application system for Grade 1 requires her to have a valid ID number or a valid permit ID. She has neither, so despite her fundamental right to education, and a court order placing her in the care of the state, she cannot get into a school. This bright little girl, who would have thrived academically, will miss out on starting school with her peers. She will have to remain at the home to be taught informally. And, unless the application system changes, or the Department of Education gives schools the option of overriding it to accept undocumented children, she will never be able to obtain any formal education.

Social workers question the wisdom of withholding education from migrant children. Realistically, it is not going to make children leave the country because in many cases they have nothing to go back to, or no connection to their birth country. Many of these children have travelled huge distances, some under terrible circumstances, developing resilience and struggling to survive. As illustrated in the story about “Precious”, many migrant children are very intelligent and would have had unlimited potential in their own countries, under different circumstances. Distressingly, though, when they arrive in South Africa, their potential is lost due to our inability to recognise them as people. 

Frustratingly, even if resources are scarce, there are undoubted benefits to educating foreigners so that they can become valuable members of our society. It is what makes projects like Three2Six so exceptional. Hosted by three private schools, the school runs from 3-6pm (after hours for their learners), and during the holidays. Its mission is to provide education for refugee children between the ages of 6 and 13 who could not otherwise access it. Not only does it utilise existing resources to avoid extra costs, but the school also provides employment for refugee teachers who would not otherwise be able to find work. Even Child and Youth Care Centres are doing their best to educate undocumented children. Some are running bridging school programmes which allow these children to have some kind of education, even though they will not obtain a certificate or formal qualification when they complete school. 

By contrast, the government’s approach seems to be marked not by innovation and perseverance, but by belligerence and myopia. It is an approach that will result in large numbers of children, many of whom are South African, or in South Africa legitimately, growing up without an education.

Going forward, there are several key questions that the Department of Education and Department of Home Affairs must answer. Firstly, how can they defend a policy that violates the constitution, the Education Act and the Children’s Act, and withholds basic education from children? Secondly, how can we provide children with court orders, place them in child and youth care facilities, yet keep them from being educated? Then, there is the critical question of how the government plans to prevent South Africans from being discriminated against when so many of them also lack proper documentation.

The final question is simply this: is this approach justified? If the goal is to drive children back to their country of origin, it is a poor strategy with an unlikely outcome. But if the goal is to preserve scarce resources, there are many innovative programmes like Three2Six which the country could pursue using vacant schools after hours. Surely the risk of large numbers of children turning 18 and becoming undocumented adults with no formal qualification, who cannot find employment, is huge. Why not instead help these children become contributing members of society? DM

* Names changed to protect their identities.

If you are in South Africa, having suicidal thoughts and in need of urgent assistance, call the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393. Visit the SADAG webpage for additional emergency contact numbers

Robyn Wolfson Vorster is a dedicated wordsmith with a background in social sciences, learning and strategic consulting who opted out of corporate life ten years ago to work as a children’s rights activist. As an adoptive mom to a beautiful daughter, she has a special interest in adoption advocacy and the needs of vulnerable children. Runner up in the 2021 Isu Elihle competition for child-focused journalism, and winner of the Mandy Rossouw award for government accountability, she uses her many words to give children a voice, educate around issues affecting them, and motivate for changes in policy. You can find her at For the Voiceless.

A registered social worker, Talia-Jade Magnes has immersed herself among the migrant communities in Johannesburg. She is committed to the advocacy of human rights and to the protection of children.

First published in the Daily Maverick: 17.12.2017

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Child Abuse

Child and Youth Care Centres

Child Homicide

Child Protection Legislation & Child Rights

Covid and Children

Early Childhood Development

Foster Care

Health and Hunger

Missing and Trafficked Children

Undocumented Children