William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

A family destroyed by bureaucratic bullies

At a stroke past Saturday midnight, Thijs van Hillegondsberg becomes a wanted man. He will be arrested at his Strand home, jailed, tried, likely committed to a Home Affairs detention centre, processed and eventually bundled onto a plane to the Netherlands.

This is because Van Hillegondsberg is an illegal immigrant and has been served with a deportation order that he has no intention of obeying.

Van Hillegondsberg, unlike various notorious European criminals who flourish in South Africa mysteriously untouched by officialdom, is not a crook. He is a water quality specialist who, in his entire 56-year life, has never been accused of a crime.

Van Hillegondsberg runs a successful business. He pays his social dues and since his arrival in South Africa 17 years ago, he and his wife have displayed a degree of community involvement that puts most of us to shame.

Van Hillegondsberg is a family man. He and his wife Pamela Poelman have a 21-year-old natural son Ludo, who is in his third year at Stellenbosch University studying medicine. They have two adopted children: Thembisa Masisa, 18, and Jan Oktober, 16.

He is not your average illegal immigrant. He didn’t bundle through border barbed wire but he does share one thing with the estimated five million illegal African immigrants in South Africa: a fierce desire to make a new life in this country. And he has tried hard to regularise his status, spending hundreds of thousands of rands trying to convert their temporary residency into permanent status.

There is no obvious answer to why he has been unable to do so. Not even Ronnie Mamoepa, the deputy-director of communications at Home Affairs can explain why Van Hillegondsberg must go, except to say: “He has broken the law by being in South Africa illegally. It is the constitutional duty of the minister to uphold the law. He must leave or he will go to jail.”

Whatever the administrative technicalities that thwarted the family’s initial application in 1996, when they in 2001 by High Court order adopted the two children that they had been fostering, the parents automatically became entitled to South African residence.

The simple reality is that Van Hillegondsberg and his family are victims of a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic nit-picking, arrogant officialdom and high ranking civil servants who think nothing of flouting the laws they are sworn to uphold. Most of all he is a victim of the shambles that is Home Affairs, probably the most dysfunctional of all government departments.

Since 2001 successive Public Protectors have tried to take up the family’s case, but were thwarted when Home Affairs ignored subpoenas to appear and categorically refused to open their files to inspection, as obligated by law. Then along came Thuli Madonsela, the one-woman Protector whirlwind who cut through the Home Affairs obfuscation to issue in 2012 a report entitled Unconscionable Delay, ruling that Van Hillegondsberg and his family had been the victims of Home Affairs maladministration and abuse of power.

Van Hillegondsberg wrote to the director-general of Home Affairs at the time: “This … felt like being released from apartheid’s prison. It has reinvigorated me and revived my hopes that my children will one day feel free, will be able to rely on a functional justice system, will feel and experience the protection of the law as long as they abide by it themselves.”

His elation was premature and unfounded. The then-minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma failed to meet the deadline to take the remedial action decreed – permanent residence by special ministerial exemption. In a personal phone call to the Public Protector, Dlamini-Zuma nevertheless assured Madonsela the exemption would be given. It never was.

Naledi Pandor has since inherited the Portfolio from Hell and, presumably on the advice of her officials, ruled that the original application was “incomplete” and that she could discern no “special circumstances” justifying an exemption. It was followed by a deportation order for Van Hillegondsberg alone – in 1999 both he and his wife had to return to Holland, then were allowed to return – meaning that the family will be split up.

Van Hillegondsberg is out of money, out of hope, out of help, and out of options. He is quietly adamant, though, that he will rather go to jail than leave. On Sunday, unless the courts provide a last-ditch intervention, that will likely happen.

Tags: , , , , ,

  • What’s in a woman’s [sur]name?
  • David kicks Goliath in the Nkandla gonads
  • Public Protector in the courts – what does it mean for me?
  • Madonsela’s challenge: ‘So, are you feeling Lucky, punk?’