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My husband? I don’t know him!

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By Simwogerere Kyazze

Affairs, reveal that corrupt employees have been finagling identity numbers of unsuspecting wenches from the national data bank, and passing them on to foreigners from all walks of life'”but mostly Bangladeshi, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Chinese and Nigerians (no surprise there). Once in possession of the ID details, the ‘˜bride-groom’ aMail-order brides; the mass hysteria of the Rev. Moon in South Korea; child brides; they all must feel this way. One day you are a happy (or not so happy) young woman living out your life. The next day, you are a bride. And sometimes you don’t even know it.

From the Indian sub-continent, through many traditional African communities, to parts of Islamic doctrine, reluctant brides have been a given away for ages, yet the latest permutation of the practice has many women in Southern Africa panic-stricken.

Like elsewhere in the world, marrying a local is the easiest way of getting Permanent Residence in South Africa. With residence, one can participate in almost every aspect of life, save for voting. So, men with foreign passports in their pockets and fear of their homelands in their hearts, try every which way to walk down the proverbial aisle with the Nosimos, Nandiphas and Nosilelas of this fair land. Except that often, the objects of affection don’t even have a clue.

Recent investigations in South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs (some have dubbed it ‘œHorrornd a conniving Home Affairs officer hold a civil ceremony with the absent bride, despite an explicit South African law that requires would-be couples to be domiciled in the same room for the nuptials to be legal. Anyway, after false champagne and honeymoon, the chap applies for permanent residence as the spouse of a South African citizen and he’s in the clear from there on. His ‘˜wife’ doesn’t even have to know about it.

That is in the ideal world of course. In the real world, most of the victims of these sham marriages eventually discover to their horror that they are ‘˜married’ or are committing ‘˜bigamy’ (being legally married two people simultaneously). Probably as a function of its former police-state status, South Africa has the most intrusive government bureaucracy of any African country, and often requires all men, women and children to have some form of ID on them at all times. The most useful one'”and most coveted by foreigners'”is a green identity document book that all South Africans get as a birth right. In it is a name, picture and a 13-digit number that starts with the year of birth. The ID book has a computerised barcode and is extremely difficult to forge. It’s still put together by human beings, so com’on! Crooks with little incentive for getting a real job will always find a way. And that’s where the false brides come in.

Anyone who has ever attempted divorce knows how traumatic and terrifying it is. It’s even more so for the young women who go to Home Affairs to replace lost ID books or to register their real marriages, only to be told that they are married, and had different'”often foreign'”surnames! With close to 5,000 fake marriages uncovered over the last five years, this can be considered a crisis. Even then, because most women don’t routinely visit Home Affairs to check on their marital status, official figures could be off the mark by tens of thousands.

It’s not like all the women are innocent either. It’s been suggested that some actually participate in the sham marriages (a practice that is common in the US) and are handsomely compensated. But unlike in the US, where American women are often well-motivated to break the law against false marriage, most of their poorer cousins in South Africa often have little say in the matter.

Naturally, the women’s lobby is fighting back. They’ve threatened to sue the government if it grants victims of fake marriages a divorce instead of annulments. And they’ve forced through a new law that requires all foreigners who marry South African citizens to wait for five years before they can apply for permanent residence. Their hope is that this would kill off the incentive for ‘˜marrying into’ the country since it’s almost impossible to keep up appearances for that long.

But what, you might wonder, tempts men to go to these illegal lengths to acquire legal status in foreign lands? Most are escaping extreme poverty, repression or a combination of both. To people fleeing from such, it does not really matter that South Africa’s unemployment is over 50 percent, that its cities are some of most unsafe, or that the HIV/AIDS pandemic has been so devastating. In almost every respect also, South Africa will never be the US, or Western Europe where asylum seekers are almost always guaranteed a monthly cheque, free housing as well as free education and health insurance.
Moreover, being the so-called Rainbow Nation that South Africa is, every person of every shape and colour can lay a legitimate claim to having been born and bred, something that a Chinese or Pakistani might not effectively sell in Uganda, where economic refugees can only come under the dubious veil of ‘˜investors’.

Still, stealing other (especially poor women’s) identities is not the best way of winning friends. These women have often endured traumatic lives themselves. Many grew up in broken homes devastated by apartheid practices that condemned their men to early graves, a generation in exile, or long periods in detention. Today, there are precious few families of black South Africans that experienced what we can simplistically refer to as a normal family life with a man, his wife and their children living under the same roof for say 20 years.

In 14 years since the end of apartheid, many women have had to depend on the state for their very survival because they have no skills, no land, and no capital. Many are eligible for Disability, Pension or Child Grants. To these women, the ID book is their life and to take it away is to condemn them to death.

Incidentally, it’s often fellow South Africans; not foreigners, well-paid Home Affairs employees who steal ID numbers off the national data bank and help preside over bogus marriages.

In contrast to most other Africans employed by government (excepting Uganda’s avaricious Members of Parliament), South African bureaucrats are well-compensated indeed. So doing their job this badly must be a manifestation of a different malaise.

Still, whatsever happened to marrying for love?

Sim is interested in Public Affair

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