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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 December, 2004, 09:33 GMT
Marriage scam targets SA women
By Barnaby Phillips
BBC Africa correspondent, Johannesburg

Faniswa Nduavana is young, bright and black. She is the kind of person, in fact, who ought to have the world at her feet in the new South Africa.

Faniswa Nduavana
Miss Nduavana is one of the many victims of identity crime in South Africa
But when I went to meet Miss Nduavana, she was depressed.

Gazing down from the balcony of her inner-city Johannesburg flat, she is watching others get on with their lives.

"My life is on hold," she says. "I am just sitting here waiting."

Miss Nduavana's problems began 18 months ago when she was robbed at gunpoint, and her identity card stolen.

When she went to pick up a replacement from South Africa's Ministry of Home Affairs, she received the shock of her life.

An official told her she was married, and had a new name.

'Mrs Ali'

But Miss Nduavana had never even heard of her alleged husband, Said Mohammed Ali, let alone met him.

"At first I thought it was a joke that could be quickly resolved," said Miss Nduavana.

But as the months dragged on, she began to despair.

Although home affairs officials promised to cancel the marriage, they have still failed to do so.

In the meantime, without a valid identity, Miss Nduavana cannot get a proper job, nor can she resume her studies.

And while her friends teasingly call her "Mrs Ali", she has no idea where to find her alleged husband.

Women check their marital status a registry office
Women have been urged to verify their marital status at registry offices
"But if I could meet him, I would tell him that he has ruined my life," says Miss Nduavana, struggling to contain her tears.

It is little consolation for Miss Nduavana, but she is one of thousands of South African women who are victims of a cruel scam.

Gangs of foreigners, often, but not exclusively, from Pakistan, Egypt, and Nigeria, pay bribes to corrupt officials in the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The officials then "marry" the foreigners to unsuspecting South African women. Until very recently, this gave any foreigner permanent residency, and, the right to look for a job in South Africa's growing economy.

In August, the South African Government, increasingly embarrassed by reports of the marriage scam, launched a "Marriage Verification Campaign", urging women across the country to go to their nearest registry office, and check that they have not been married without their knowledge.

From August to mid-October, according to government figures, 1,300 fraudulent marriages were uncovered.

Countries involved in the fight against international crime and terrorism are concerned about the ease with which officials can be bribed
"We know there are corrupt officials," says the Minister of Home Affairs, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, "but we don't think that most officials are corrupt, and we are encouraged that more and more whistle-blowers are coming forward from the various departments".

Minister Mapisa-Nqakula argues that South Africa is, to some extent, a victim of its own success: the marriage scam has only become so lucrative because so many foreigners want to live in this country.

Credibility on the line

She says women who are victims of the scam do not need to divorce their mysterious "husbands".

Instead, there is a procedure to quickly cancel the marriages.

But the delays and frustrations experienced by women like Miss Nduavana shows that Minister Mapisa-Nqakula still has some way to go before the chronic corruption and inefficiency in her department is brought under control.

Stolen passports found at officials home
Passports are stolen and sold to international criminal gangs
And it is not just South Africans who are worried.

Other countries involved in the fight against international crime and terrorism are also concerned about the apparent ease with which South African home affairs officials can be bribed.

In May, British police raided the home of an alleged terrorism suspect in London, where they are reported to have discovered boxes and boxes of South African passports.

Diplomats in Pretoria believe that at least 10,000 South African passports have been sold to foreigners in recent years.

Of course, the likelihood is that most, if not all, of these will have gone to economic migrants hoping to settle in South Africa.

But if even a handful have fallen into the wrong hands, the prospects are frightening.

The South African Government's credibility is on the line.

Living in SA's crime capital
11 Apr 02 |  Africa
Country profile: South Africa
28 Nov 02 |  Country profiles

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