I want to be in school but… we have no papers’: Undocumented Zim children struggle to find schools in SA
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- Many undocumented children of immigrant parents are struggling to get placements at South African schools.
- The online school registration placement system requires documentation, and most public schools insist on it.
- Private schools will accept undocumented children, but the fees are too high for most parents.
It is 10:00, and 9-year-old Michael is begging at a set of traffic lights in Johannesburg. Most children his age are back at school after the holidays. But Michael is undocumented.
He has not been in school since 2021, when he used to attend a private school. His family could not afford to keep him there, and the school also gave him notice that he should provide some documentation if he wanted to continue classes, GroundUp reported.
His two siblings and their mother, a widow, sometimes join Michael at the traffic lights to beg from motorists. They usually spread out to increase their chances of getting something.
Michael and one of his sisters were born in South Africa. The younger one was born in Zimbabwe and came to South Africa as a baby. The older sibling used to attend school but the younger one has never been to school.
“Why are you not in school?” motorists have asked. The children don’t know how to answer. They want to go to school.
“I want to be in school, but my mother says we have no papers. Standing at the robots is boring, but we have no choice because we need food,” said Michael.
Michael’s mother said:
Not being able to send my children to school is heartbreaking. My children have neither Zimbabwean nor South African papers because we have been in Johannesburg for a long time.
The online school placement system requires documents for registration, so parents go to schools in person, door to door, only to be turned away. Michael’s mother tried several public schools, but they insisted she provide documents.
Some private schools will take undocumented children, but charge fees ranging from R500 to R1 500 a month. Most undocumented immigrant parents do not have a sufficient or stable enough income to cover this.
Smangaliso, from Bulawayo in Zimbabwe but originally from Mozambique, only acquired Zimbabwean citizenship a few years ago. She brought her grandchildren, aged 9 and 11, to Johannesburg three years ago after their father died. She has not found a public school that is prepared to take them without documents.
“It’s not easy back home in Bulawayo. At least here (Johannesburg) I can buy food with the money I make from selling sweets… My grandchildren need an education… I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Rudo, a secretary by profession, lost her job because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Her children have been at home for the past year because she cannot afford the R950 a month she was paying to keep them in a private school.
South Africa is the only home they know. All I want is for them to go to school but it is not as easy as that.
Zimbabwe Isolated Women in South Africa (Ziwisa) has compiled a database of children living in the inner-city of Johannesburg who are in this predicament.
“There are close to 1 000 migrant children from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Congo and Lesotho [who] we have registered so far, who are not going to school due to lack of documentation,” said Ethel Musonza from Ziwisa.
“While some [children] might be lucky enough to be enrolled into primary school, it’s difficult to get placed in high schools,” she said.
The matric certificates of immigrant children are missing the 13-digit South African ID number, and their validity is often doubted.
“In Johannesburg, there are a number of private schools offering the University of Cambridge high school system to allow migrant children to have usable certificates, but such schools are expensive,” said Musonza.
Cambridge system matric certificates do not require South African ID numbers, and the system is generally favoured by many immigrants.
Ziwisa, in partnership with Bishop Paul Verryn of the Methodist Church in Johannesburg, is fundraising for a school for immigrant children.
“The project will cater for all children, including those who are undocumented,” Verryn said. He added that the school would have to charge a small fee.
“We will also offer the University of Cambridge syllabus to cater for migrant children with no ID numbers or birth certificates. All children have the right to attend school.
“The Albert school, which was operating on the premises of the Methodist Church, catered for only Zimbabweans who were struggling with school placement, but has now officially been closed. Should a new school be opened, a difference will be made in the lives of needy children,” said Verryn.