Lawyers for Human Rights
Lawyers for Human Rights

How will our society be measured on corruption?

Rita* fled the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Africa in 2009 after suffering unspeakable horrors and grave violations to her rights amid ongoing violence.

The department of home affairs immediately recognised her as a refugee but when she was asked to pay a large amount of money to receive her refugee permit, Rita refused and approached a lawyer, knowing that services rendered by home affairs are free. Attempts to secure her permit without approaching a court were fruitless and aggravated the situation. When she delivered a letter from her lawyers to home affairs’ officers, her refugee permit was torn up and the police were called. Despite having no reason to do so, she was arrested.

While we often hear about corruption within government departments, we rarely read about its impact on individuals, our society and the state.

Although the original action was a clear violation of law, home affairs vigorously opposed Rita’s court bid to obtain a temporary permit, resulting in her remaining undocumented and vulnerable. Home affairs’ stance forms part of an alarming trend in which it opposes matters in which it is obvious that they have broken the law. Not only does this frustrate the objects of the Refugees Act — legislation designed to protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society — but it also contradicts the home affairs’ own policy of regularising refugees and asylum-seekers. This leaves Rita in an untenable position after first being a victim of corruption by low-level officials, then having the state sanction this behaviour by opposing her case, and continuing to deny her legal status.

For Rita, there are very real effects produced as a direct result of this stance. She is continually arrested and has spent time in jail, often with criminals, until her eventual and inevitable release. On some of the occasions that she was arrested she has endured sexual harassment at the hands of police who exploit her vulnerability and illegal status to avoid penalties. Rita is unable to work to support her children, one of whom suffers from chronic illness. As she is also unable to access social security on account of being undocumented she is either forced to trade illegally or rely on charitable institutions. When she does trade informally, her operations are shut down and her goods confiscated. On one occasion that her goods were stolen she was turned away from police stations when she tried to report it because she could not produce her refugee permit.

Home affairs’ stance does not only have negative consequences for Rita but also for South Africans. While many South Africans may not be particularly concerned about the treatment of one foreign family, they should nonetheless be concerned about a government that habitually violates the law, holds itself above the law in its disrespect for judicial pronouncement and is unaccountable to the public. There is little reason to believe this treatment will not extend itself to South Africans, in fact, there is evidence to support it.

Rita’s case, home affairs’ refusal to issue her permit means she has no choice but to continue to look to the courts to enforce, uphold and protect her rights. Rita has been to court three times. The stance taken by the state in opposing her case has wasted thousands of rands of taxpayer money on nothing more than the violation of the law. This is money that could have been used on the provision of important services necessary to meet human dignity, such as stocking a school library, providing a police station with working computers with the aim of efficiency and the reduction of crime, or building or improving toilets in impoverished areas.

All this is the result of one instance of corruption that has become a rising trend. It has been four years since Rita was asked to pay for her permit. She remains undocumented while in the process of securing another court date to hold home affairs in contempt of court. She is unable to return to her country where she would face a real risk of persecution and has thus been thrust into a state of limbo.

It is often said that the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its most vulnerable members. The contemptible manner in which home affairs has treated her illustrates their disregard for those that need their protection most — women and children — and that is telling in our society.

* Not her real name

Anjuli Maistry is an attorney with the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme in Johannesburg.

Tags: , , ,

  • The weakness of the ANC
  • The truth about Nkandla
  • My criticism of Thabo Mbeki’s OR Tambo lecture
  • The resilience of a Somali community in Joburg
    • Call for Honesty

      The SA Constitution is worthless when it can do nothing about incompetent and corrupt government officials and protection of the most vulnerable. Every case like this is nail in the coffin of the SA Human Rights record.

    • Fred Kruger

      Yours is a vivid account of what I must assume is a common case, and it is an unequivocal indictment of official maladministration and corruption, of a government that habitually ‘holds itself above the law’. Since we know that the office of our Head of State is resisting the findings of the courts, such as in the ‘secret tapes’ case, and in the case of the injunction to release the observers’ report on the last but one election in Zimbabwe, what is the way forward? Work and wait for political change, and try in the mean time to live as a good citizen? Support R2K, and hope for progress? It is not clear to me what the good citizen can do.

    • michael

      Sadly it will not change for the better it will only get worse.

    • Miss O

      It is heartbreaking and disturbing how “foreign nationals” are treated in our country. I wonder what happens in the future if our own country suffers maybe as a result of some kind of a revolution (thanks to the massive social inequality, the rampant corruption and the ruling elite’s contempt for the poor black majority). Who knows if these other African countries may have an upper hand over us in the near future?

    • bernpm

      “How will our society be measured on corruption?”

      Try any other society (or government employee which represents his/her society) and you will find the reluctant attitude towards work if the opportunity presents itself. The easiest option is for asking a arbitrary sum of money (if you fall for it, you are through) or call for the official route and run into the real arbitrary barriers of the “bureaucracy”.

      Civil servants have been trained to follow laws and procedures, some of those they do not understand themselves. No danger for them to follow the rules at the expense of the person who wants to be served. An extra handful of money can grease the palm of the reluctant hand…the rest is covered under the “we only follow the law/rule/procedure” statement.

      Been there on border posts as well as encounters with the local police. Many of them rate well on the scale of applying the rules with some flexibility but at a price.
      We do not cal it corruption any longer.

    • francois williams

      I am not surprised…Home Affairs seemed to consist of human scum…

    • Belle

      First they came for Rita … and I thought she deserved her fate as an illegal immigrant.

      Then they cancelled all SA identity documents for indian people and replaced them with temporary residence permits, and I rejoiced, because I hate the indians.

      Then they chased the coloureds out of the Western Cape … and I agreed because they were too predominant in that province.

      Then they forced all Setswana families to go back to Botswana, and I felt relieved that my Setswana wife was south african by marriage.

      Then they ruled that the Pedi could only live in Limpopo, and I kept quiet, because my mother is Pedi.

      Then they told me that, because I was Xhosa, I could only practise law in the Eastern Cape ..

      …. and you know the rest of the story.

    • Paul Kearney

      This is disgraceful but sadly not confined to Home Affairs. Every government department has an element of dishonesty and corruption, often starting at the very top with the minister. Proudly brought to SA by the ANC.

    • Rory Short

      It is very sad, the complete opposite of what the anti-Apartheid movement struggle for, but it is the nature of people who cannot see further than their noses. Unfortunately the ANC leadership seems to have been hi-jacked by such people so, as they are in government, the rot inevitably spreads into the civil service.The people suffer when you have poor government, South Africa has historically been cursed with a succession of poor governments, except that on this occasion the people can vote the government out of power.