The widow of a late Zimbabwean man, who she claimed had obtained South African citizenship, asked the Gauteng High Court to overturn a decision by the Department of Home Affairs not to issue a death certificate.
Sylvia Melaphi, a mother of three, eventually obtained the death certificate for her husband Robert Melaphi more than a year and a half after his death.
The department was adamant that Robert was not a South African citizen. According to the department, the law precluded it from issuing a death certificate to a non-South African.
While his widow insisted he was a South African citizen, Home Affairs simply disputed this without supplying any facts in this regard to the court.
Acting Judge SDJ Wilson said the department had “perhaps not taken the attitude I would ideally expect from a responsible organ of State in matters of this nature.”
He added that the department should have perhaps responded to the widow’s plight with more reasoned compassion than has been in evidence in this case.
The husband died in April 2019 after a long illness. He left money for his funeral, savings and a life policy to support his wife and children.
His widow wanted to access the benefits, but could not as she was unable to convince officials of the department to issue an unabridged certificate.
The death certificate is one of a series of documents necessary to access the various payments and benefits to which the widow and her children would be entitled. It is also necessary to finally wind up her husband’s estate.
The department refused to issue the death certificate, claiming that the deceased was not a South African citizen at the time of his death and as a result did not qualify for a death certificate.
Melaphi said her husband was born in South Africa to a South African mother and a Zimbabwean father. Home Affairs, on the other hand, offered a bare denial of this to the court.
The judge said the department’s unsubstantiated denial was insufficient to create a dispute of fact. He said in the absence of facts to counter the widow’s claim, he must accept that the deceased acquired South African citizenship by birth.
He said the deceased acquired an ID, driving licence, passport and marriage certificate, which were shown to the court. His ID, with a South African number, was issued in 1995.
The department, out of the blue, questioned his citizenship in 2010. But by the time of his death the investigation into his legal status had not been completed.
His widow said he was so distressed by the investigation that his health deteriorated, he became chronically ill, lost his job and eventually died.
The judge said one would have expected the department to give some answers as to why it had suspected that he was illegally in the country. But none was provided.
The department instead mentioned the “Beitbridge Project” which was implemented over the 2009/10 Christmas and New Year period.
This was to check all travel documents for those who travelled between South Africa and Zimbabwe. The project involved interviewing travellers at the border post in Beitbridge, and deciding whether or not to seize their documents.
The documents of the deceased were subsequently seized, but the department could not say why.
“The gravest cause for concern in the respondents’ (department) answering affidavit is that there is simply no account of on what basis Mr Melaphi’s citizenship was found to be suspect …,” the judge said in ordering that the death certificate be issued.