Thoughts on becoming a South African “undesirable”

undesirable in South Africa

I’m not a big fan of expressions. They seem to reinforce lazy writing and cliches. But there’s an expression about saying goodbye and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. It feels like the right visual to use when describing what happened when we left South Africa, and when I became an “undesirable”.

I’ve been having residency issues in South Africa pretty much forever. I arrived with a life partner visa, and had a wonderful lady help me with my first application. I think she even helped me when I did a renewal visa, but then she vanished. Like, stopped responding to emails, calls… just gone. I ended up having my residency lapse, and I had to pay a fine, but was able to resolve it with a new residency guy. But things got way worse.

I was in the process of renewing my visa while I was pregnant. The guy who had helped me before was helping me again, although he had also gone through a period of disappearing (must be a casualty of the profession). We had all the paperwork in order and were just waiting for my police clearance when I had the emergency pre-eclampsia (full-blown eclampsia? There was nothing “pre” about it) and c-section that landed me in the hospital for a week. Despite trying to resolve the matter through Dean and the immigration dude from the hospital, my visa lapsed.

This then led to more issues, with Home Affairs refusing to issue Harley her birth certificate despite being a South Africa citizen. I wrote about the problem here on this blog, and some of you even helped with tweeting at Home Affairs for me. It definitely got their attention, and I was escalated to speaking with a top manager at Home Affairs who was told to help resolve the matter for me. I submitted my letter of good cause to him, hoping to be able to pay a fine or deal with whatever punishment from Home Affairs and then get my residency in order. That never happened, but at least Harley was eventually issued a birth certificate.

I continued to reach out to the people at the South Africa Home Affairs. When the first manager (Sakie Lekala) stopped responding to me, I was escalated to speak to Hilda Dlamini. She promised to resolve the situation within a couple weeks, and then also stopped responding to my emails or taking my calls. Eventually, I went from emailing them every week, to every two weeks, to once a month, to eventually only reaching out to them every few months – what was the point of trying to get in touch when nothing was ever getting done?

On the 15th of August, Dean and I left South Africa. We had a sad goodbye with family and friends, and then it was time to get on our plane and go. But first, we had to get through airport security and immigration. Of course, when I gave the customs guy my passport, I had overstayed my original visa. By a lot. I told him the whole story, and he said that I would probably have my punishment overturned. What was my punishment? A five-year ban from South Africa.

That’s right, I was officially an undesirable person. At least, that’s what it said on the form.

Not to worry, though, I thought. I had ten working days to send proof of why I shouldn’t be banned, and it would be overturned.  I just had to email a specific email address at Home Affairs, and it would get sorted out. Dean and I added it to the list of things we needed to do, along with getting Dean’s immigration stuff all lined up, getting his driver’s license in the US and all other matter of admin.

On our second day in the country, we sent all the documents to the email address listed. It bounced back. I tried a few more times with different versions of the email address in case there was an extra letter or they had transposed something. Still bounced back. I called the consulates in the US to see if maybe they could help us directly or at least point us in the right direction, but so far nothing has come of that.

In the meantime, we’ve continued with the rest of the admin that needed doing to get set up with bank accounts, get Dean’s social security number, get him an American driver’s license, etc. In the two and a half weeks we’ve been in the country, we managed to get all the US admin done. Yup, we are pretty much set up now with the basic admin that needed doing, and now we’re moving on to getting our tax lined up, finding the right health insurance and even starting to look at cars, neighborhoods and potential homes. Our South African admin? No further along now than when we left the country. Dean’s parents are trying to help, phoning the local number provided to try and resolve my ban, but after 12 redials there was still no answer on the line.

I don’t want to become one of those people. You know the type – the ones who emigrate and then constantly talk about how the new country is SO MUCH BETTER than the old one. I’m not saying the US is perfect. There’s a lot that’s weird or different, and the estimates of our health insurance (and health care in general in the States) are horrifying. But, at least the admin just works. Sure, there’s bureaucracy here like anywhere, and sometimes multiple steps to things (like I had to go to Social Security to change my name before I could change it on my driver’s license), but it all just works out. It can be tedious or frustrating here, but it never feels impossible the way it can with South African Home Affairs.

It feels so unfair, and yet I can’t say it’s surprising. I’ve been fighting to resolve my residency situation for years. I’ve faced hurdle after hurdle, and a big part of why we decided to emigrate was because it just kept feeling like South Africa didn’t actually want me there. Dean, in particular, has been infuriated by it all. He’s a South African citizen. The Constitution protects his right to marry anyone he wants. And yet his wife has been ignored and now banned by his country, while the US is welcoming him with open arms.

At this point, I have no idea how, or even if, we will manage to get my five-year ban at status as an undesirable overturned. It makes me sad in some ways, particularly because we won’t be able to return for our friends’ wedding, or visit family and friends when they procreate, or generally just return to South Africa all together for a long time. I also feel vaguely uncomfortable with the fact that there is officially a country on this planet that doesn’t want me – psychologically it feels so weird to be an “undesirable”. This is even worse when I think about how it was our home for so long, was where we put down roots, where Harley was born.

On the other hand, I’m not actually all that upset about it. I mean, it sucks, but it also sort of feels like a sign. It really was the right thing to leave SA when we did. And besides, it’s not like I wanted to turn around and travel back to South Africa with Harley in the next six months or year – it’s a ridiculously long and difficult journey to make with a toddler. Once she is a bit older and easier to travel with, it will probably be around the timing when I wanted to try for baby #2 anyway, which means I wouldn’t make that trip because pregnant, then with a new born… and then the five-year ban could be up anyway. In the meantime, it just means that friends from SA will need to get to the States to visit us, or we meet up somewhere else like Europe or Asia. There are so many places in the world that I still want to see, I suppose it makes more sense to travel to someplace new (or at least somewhere I haven’t been in years) rather than return to SA anytime soon.

Still, I feel bad that it’s not our own choice now. Even if we want or need to return to South Africa for something, we can’t unless Dean goes alone or with Harley. I’m officially persona non grata. Such a weird feeling, and even more frustrating that the same inefficiency that caused the problem in the first place is leading to its continuation.

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  • Seriously that is shocking. But I am not surprised. Home Affairs… well enough said. I was surprised they did Nicky’s unabridged birth certificate so quickly. My ID book to change my surname.. well that took a while. They messed up my fingerprints. They lost documentation. I just kept going back until eventually it was done. A year later.
    I’m so sad they have treated you this way.

    • Zoe Hawkins

      Yeah, exactly – it’s shocking and yet not surprising to those of us who have dealt with Home Affairs. It was more of a surprise that getting Dean’s new ID and Harley’s passport was so easy – super quick and efficient through Home Affairs at FNB. And now, being in a country where everything just WORKS, I realize how much energy and planning went into working around bureaucracy never happening the way it should.

  • Melissa Javan

    So sorry to hear this. This is so sad, undeserving.