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South Africa: Undocumented Children Struggle to Find Schools

Instead of being in school some beg at traffic lights

  • Many children of immigrant parents who are undocumented are struggling to get places in 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 10am and nine-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.

Michael 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 had also given him notice that he must show some documentation if he was to continue classes.

His two siblings, and their mother, a widow, sometimes join Michael at the robots 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 but came to South Africa as a baby. The older 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,” says Michael.

“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,” says Michael’s mother.

The online school placement system requires documents to register, so parents go in person to schools, door to door, only to be turned away. Michael’s mother tried several public schools but they insisted she bring documents.

Some private schools will take undocumented children, but they charge fees that range 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 but originally from Mozambique, only acquired Zimbabwean citizenship a few years ago. She brought her grandchildren, aged nine and 11, to Johannesburg three years ago after their father passed away. She has not found a public school 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 says.

Rudo, a secretary by profession, lost her job because of the Covid 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,” she says.

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 we have registered so far who are not going to school due to lack of documentation,” says Ethel Musonza of ZIWISA.

“While some [children] might be lucky enough to be enrolled into primary school, it’s difficult to get placed in high schools,” she says.

The matric certificates of immigrant children are missing the 13-digit SA ID number on them, 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,” says Musonza.