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Why South Africa’s Undocumented Teens Are Dropping Out of School

Thousands of undocumented children in South Africa have been unable to graduate since a government directive last summer. Advocates argue they’re being punished for their parents’ actions. Mxolisi Ncube meets migrant students whose professional dreams have been dashed.

Written by Mxolisi Ncube Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Zimbabwean and Mozambican migrants wait outside a hardware store in Johannesburg in the hope of getting odd jobs, November 2017. GULSHAN KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

JOHANNESBURG – Silindile Ndlovu was weeks away from finishing high school when she discovered she would not be able to sit end-of-term exams alongside her class mates. As a native Zimbabwean, 18-year-old Ndlovu found out she would have to produce papers proving her right to remain in South Africa to register for the exams.

Ndlovu had been living in Johannesburg since she was 11 years old, but like thousands of other undocumented minors living in the country she has no papers. Her family crossed into South Africa when Ndlovu’s father died and her mother came in search of work. They settled in Hillbrow, an inner-city suburb of Johannesburg.

“My mother couldn’t register us on the system because her asylum application was rejected. Several attempts for her to get a work permit also failed,” says Ndlovu. “We kept hoping something would change along the way so we continued going to school.”

Ndlovu hoped to enroll in medical school and become the first person in her family to qualify as a doctor. But without passing the school-leaver exams, known as the National Senior Certificate, Ndlovu would not be able to apply for university or continue her education. She’s been working illegally in a restaurant in Johannesburg ever since.

There were an estimated 1.5 million undocumented migrants living in South Africa at the end of 2016, according to a community survey by Statistics South Africa. Around 175,000 of those counted were aged 19 or under. Many more children are born in South Africa to parents without papers. Often these births are not registered because of legislative restrictions on migrant children receiving birth certificates.

Without a birth certificate these children have no means of obtaining papers to work or go to school in South Africa and they are likely to remain undocumented for the rest of their lives. At 18 years old they can be deported back to their parents’ country of origin, despite having been born or spent most of their lives in South Africa.

Last July, the departments of education and home affairs ordered schools to send home children who do not have proper documents and to stop them sitting exams. The government said the move was to preserve limited resources for South African children and those who have been given asylum. For undocumented school leavers like Ndlovu, the decision was devastating.

Child rights campaigners have called on the government to reverse the decision. They say tens of thousands of migrant children are being denied admission to school or are dropping out because they don’t have the right documents. They also say the current system unfairly punishes children of migrants for the actions of their parents.

“The implication for South African society is the creation of a significant population of undocumented youth who, if documented, could be actively contributing to the South African economy and society,” says Sindisiwe Moyo, the advocacy officer at Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, a faith-based nongovernmental organization that cares for migrants and refugees. The center’s recent survey on unaccompanied and foreign children found that some 40 percent were not accessing their right to education, with lack of documentation being the main reason.

The report also notes that laws governing access to education by foreign children in South Africa are contradictory. On the one hand, the South African Schools Act makes it compulsory for children aged 7–15 years old to attend school, but the Immigration Act makes teaching an “illegal foreigner” a criminal offence.

Moyo says that while migrant children could, in theory, obtain a study permit, most undocumented youth cannot meet the strict requirements or afford to travel home in order to apply from their country of origin. Further, she says, “they risk being declared ‘undesirable’ upon exiting the country with no permit – so they are almost trapped in a Catch-22 situation.

“For this specific category of youth [undocumented migrants from low-income families], getting valid documentation is almost impossible. A programme to document such youth would be beneficial to all parties,” she says.

Marc Gbaffou, chair of the African Diaspora Forum, a Johannesburg-headquartered migrants’ rights group, argues that barring migrant children from public schools is a “well-calculated” move “meant to continue relegating migrants to second-class citizens and discriminating against them.

“The government knows that if it legalized migrant children, it would also need to legalize their parents because they cannot have legal children and yet deport their parents,” he says. Legalizing their parents would give them easier access to the job market and social services, and the government wants to prevent them competing with locals in the job market, Gbaffou argues.

News Deeply contacted the government but they declined to comment.

So undocumented students have few options but to take informal work, with all the instability and risks that entails. While Ndlovu found work in the hospitality industry, where migrant labor is common, fellow Zimbabwean dropout Ephraim Nkosi found it impossible to find a steady job.

He hoped to study business administration before he was forced to drop out in his final year of high school. He still dreams of starting a restaurant business and estimates he would need R50,000 ($4,260) to start a small kitchen. But his earnings from short-term work are “gobbled up by rent and other basic needs,” Nkosi says.

To make ends meet, he sometimes resorts to street gambling “but success and safety are not always guaranteed there,” he says. Nkosi has so far managed to avoid the violence – sometimes deadly – that he’s witnessed among fellow gamblers. “I feel like this country hates foreigners and treats all of them like criminals,” he says.

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