Note: Many South Africans who need to be aware of this risk will be overseas and/or may not have heard of the High Court decision we discuss below. If you know of any such person, please consider forwarding this to them as soon as possible.
A recent High Court judgment has confirmed that you will lose your South African citizenship if you apply for citizenship of any other country without prior Ministerial permission.
It is irrelevant whether you are South African by birth or not. It is also irrelevant why you want to acquire dual citizenship – perhaps you are living/working overseas, perhaps you want a second passport just to make travelling easier, perhaps you have financial reasons.
How and why you lose your South African citizenship
Dual citizenship itself is allowed, but our Citizenship Act provides that if “by some voluntary and formal act” you acquire citizenship or nationality of another country, you are deprived of your South African citizenship. And Home Affairs is interpreting that to mean that you have voluntarily given up your South African citizenship by your own “formal act” of applying for foreign citizenship.
You are exempt only if …
This loss of citizenship does not apply to –
1. Minors (under 18 years of age) and
2. Acquisition of another country’s citizenship by marriage.
How to retain your South African citizenship
The good news is that you can apply through Home Affairs for authority to retain your SA citizenship – but your application must be approved before you acquire your second citizenship.
The bad news is that it takes time, so don’t leave it to the last minute! Even before the pandemic, processing time was given as “3 to 6 months” and media reports suggest that delays are now much longer, although perhaps the publicity surrounding the High Court case in question will assist in improving the situation. If you are overseas, you should find the necessary forms and instructions on your local SA Embassy/Mission/Consulate website.
You’ve lost your citizenship – what now?
This is very much second prize, but you can still apply to get your citizenship back –
• If you were a citizen by birth or descent you can apply for reinstatement only if you have returned to, or are living in, South Africa permanently (you still have permanent residence, you just aren’t a citizen).
• If you were a citizen by naturalisation, you must re-apply for permanent residence or apply for exemption thereof, before you can be considered for resumption of citizenship.
• If all else fails, consider taking the legal route. As we discuss below, the High Court has recently held that the relevant provisions of the Citizenship Act pass Constitutional muster, but there is talk of a possible appeal.
High Court: Choose how important your citizenship is to you, and know the law
There has always been speculation that this section of the Citizenship Act could be held to be unconstitutional. However, in rejecting a recent application to that effect by the Democratic Alliance, the High Court has confirmed that it passes constitutional muster and is not “irrational”.
The High Court’s reasoning was that “It is ultimately a matter of personal choice what weight each of us attaches to the idea of our citizenship”, and that this is not a case of automatic loss of citizenship without notice but rather it “is really about personal and individual choices people make about their future and often choices come with consequences.”
The section in question, held the Court, is “not a secret provision but one that every citizen who voluntarily seeks to acquire another citizenship should ordinarily acquaint themselves with … while it may be arguable that citizens cannot be expected to know every feature of the law, those citizens involved in migration and relocation to other countries with the possibility of acquiring citizenship there must surely be expected to acquaint themselves with the law in that area of activity they are involved in.”
There is talk of an appeal but for now at least, if you have already lost your citizenship your options are limited to those set out above.
P.S. Never let your SA passport lapse!
Although you can travel freely around the world on your second passport, you must enter and depart from South Africa on your valid SA passport. Keep renewing it!