October 18, 2004
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) -- Fatima and Zain have been dating for a year and often joke about marriage, but it was no laughing matter when the Department of Home Affairs told the couple something truly astounding: Fatima had already been married for two years, to a man she had never met.
Fatima, 28, is one of some 3,400 people who in the last three years have been married without their knowledge in scams that involve corrupt government officials and foreigners seeking permanent residency.
The problem appears to be getting more serious with time -- since August, about 800 women have discovered they have been victims of the fraud. Police say it is a cheap way for foreigners to obtain citizenship and avoid new immigration laws that make it tougher to stay in the country.
"On paper I'm supposed to be married to a Nigerian man whose name I don't know," said the soft spoken Fatima, whose surname was being withheld to protect her privacy. She discovered her false marriage in September after checking a special government Web site set up to help women check their marital status.
"We were fooling around in the office and a colleague joked that I should check ... you never think it can happen to you. I was completely stunned. Even your name can be stolen these days," she said.
According to her false marriage certificate she was married on May 16, 2002.
"I wasn't even in Cape Town at the time of the wedding," said Fatima. "The whole mess has made me more careful with my personal details."
The South African Police Service would not comment on whether a criminal syndicate was operating in the country.
"We are working closely with the Department of Home Affairs regarding this ongoing investigation. We are in the process of investigating several individuals and are following up information. More arrests are expected to be made soon," spokeswoman Mary Martins-Engelbrecht said.
She said those involved in the scams normally approach a Home Affairs official and secure marriage certificates for a fee or bribe.
Officials have access to birth, death and marriage details and select an identity number at random or from a single female of the appropriate age.
Many of the men involved are already married in other countries. South Africa is one of the few countries that does not require a letter verifying marital status before allowing couples to marry so the entire process can be done on paper and filed.
According to Home Affairs spokesman Leslie Mashokwe, the department will check Fatima's marital records and hand them over to the police.
"Once the police can confirm that the details like witnesses to the marriage are false, then we officially expunge the records of that union," Mashokwe said. The process is completed at no cost to Fatima and scam victims like her.
Mashokwe said several investigations into fraudulent marriages were underway but only a few annulments had been finalized.
He said the matter was being dealt with seriously by the department and several arrests of officials had been made in the last weeks.
In August, two Home Affairs officials were arrested by the Scorpions special investigating unit. They are facing charges of fraud and corruption after issuing citizenship to a Chinese national who had arranged a bogus wedding.
In September, three Egyptians were arrested for fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud when three local women confessed they were being paid 150 rand (about $30 Cdn) a month to remain married to them in fake unions.
Last week, a Pakistani man was arrested after paying a township woman 100 rand (about $20 Cdn) a month to be his bogus wife. He will appear in court on fraud charges.
At the August launch of an awareness campaign called Check Your Status, Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula shouldered some of the blame.
"It is our view that (the) government needed to take a more active role in identifying and assisting the victims most of whom have been failed by the weaknesses in our own system," she said.
She said the department is hoping amendments to immigration laws will lead to fewer bogus weddings. Foreign spouses of South Africans now must wait five years for work and permanent residency permits, rather than receiving them immediately.
So far, more than 17,000 women have reported to Home Affairs or checked their marital status on the government Web site.
"When I get married one day I don't want any horrible surprises like this again," Fatima said.