Family LawSocietyNavigating Citizenship in African Countries: A Closer Look at South African Laws

January 23, 2024

As recent as 3 months ago, South African news reports confirmed that the Polokwane High Court issued a ruling that children born in South Africa to foreign national parents do notautomatically qualify as South African citizens.

Zimbabwean parents who were seeking an application to be issued with South African birth certificates for their children were denied their request due to them as parents not being citizens or having obtained citizenship through the various means.

Citizenship is a complex and multifaceted concept, varying from country to country and often shaped by historical, political, and socio-economic factors. Let us look closely into the intricacies of citizenship in African countries, with a focus specifically on South African laws.

The general public perception when it comes to citizenship is that by virtue of being born in a particular country you will be a citizen of that country. While this is not the case, more especially in South Africa, it has not always been that way. If you were born in South Africa before the 1st January 2013 by a single permanent resident, then you would be a South African citizen. After January 2013 changes were implemented, leading to the current state of citizenship now which states that in order to obtain automatic citizenship in South Africa by foreign national parent, at least one of the parents must be a South African by birth.

1. Diverse Citizenship Models:

African countries have put together diverse citizenship models, ranging from citizenship by descent to citizenship by birthplace. The criteria for acquiring citizenship can vary, impacting who is eligible and under what circumstances.

2. Dual/Multiple Citizenship:

Policies regarding dual or multiple citizenship differ across the continent. Some nations embrace it, allowing citizens to hold more than one nationality, while others restrict or outright prohibit dual citizenship. It’s essential to be aware of the specific regulations in each country.

3. Citizenship in South Africa Birthright Citizenship:

South Africa follows a hybrid citizenship model, incorporating elements of both citizenship by descent and citizenship by birthplace. Birth in the country grants automatic citizenship, provided at least one parent is a South African citizen or a permanent resident.


Foreign nationals seeking South African citizenship through naturalization must meet certain criteria, including residing in the country for a specified period, demonstrating good character, and fulfilling language requirements. The process can be intricate, requiring careful adherence to legal procedures. However, as laws around South African Citizenship becomestricter, it is worth noting that even though there’s allowance to qualify for citizenship after you have resided in South Africa for a period of 5 years, the current government has mentioned talks of changing that, therefore as time goes by this will be not the case.

Dual Citizenship

South Africa allows dual citizenship, meaning individuals can retain their original nationality while becoming South African citizens. However, the laws surrounding dual citizenship can evolve, making it crucial to stay informed about any updates or changes.

Citizenship by Descent

If one or both parents are South African citizens, their children may qualify for citizenship by descent. Understanding the documentation and application processes is essential for those seeking citizenship through this avenue.

4. Challenges and Considerations

Legal Complexity

Citizenship laws can be complex and subject to change. Seeking legal advice or consulting official government resources is advisable to navigate the intricacies accurately.

Human Rights and Statelessness

Some individuals in Africa may face challenges related to statelessness, impacting their access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment, security,.etc.

Advocacy for inclusive citizenship policies and awareness of human rights are crucial aspects of addressing these issues. South Africa has made an effort to ratify a range of international and regional legal basis to address childhood statelessness and the Constitution of South African Citizenship Act seeks to protect the right of every child to a name and nationality at birth.

Navigating citizenship in African countries, including South Africa, requires a nuanced understanding of legal frameworks, historical contexts, and evolving policies. As citizens and policymakers engage in dialogues about identity and belonging, staying informed about the laws governing citizenship is vital for fostering inclusive societies and ensuring the protection of individuals’ rights.

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