Just over three years ago, I went to the bank to make some changes ahead of filing my tax returns.
When I arrived, I found out that my surname didn’t match the one on my ID document.
When I had signed marriage papers two years earlier, I clearly remember ticking the box that would supposedly ensure that my surname did not change to that of my soon-to-be husband.
I had written three dissertations and published under that surname and had no intention of erasing the past five years of my academic career, and my name, just because I was tying the knot.
I went to Home Affairs to rectify what I thought was a simple administrative error on their part. Instead, I ended up in a screaming match with an official who, when I told him that I wanted my old surname back, kept repeating the phrase “but you’re married, you must take your husband’s name”.
I then had to go, husband in tow, to the police station, so that he could depose to an affidavit stating that he was fine with me changing my name back. Home Affairs then required me to pay a fee to make the change.
Well, it turns out my story isn’t a unique one. When I spoke to friends, many of them had either had a similar experience or knew someone who had.
Sarah Wild’s recent article on News24 confirms that this is a nationwide problem.
In 2019 in South Africa, adult women need their husbands’ permission to keep their birth names. In some instances, they even need evidence of their father’s consent. This is according to home affairs officials.
It is a common lament among married women that the Department of Home Affairs changes their name to that of their husband – unasked. It is usually working women who have professional personas, but often it is women who simply want to keep their birth name. For government, though, the reason should be irrelevant. By ticking the box on the marriage form that a woman wants to retain their birth name, she is giving the Department of Home Affairs a legal instruction.
When Wild went to vote in the elections, she discovered that she did not exist on the voters’ roll. Her surname had been changed to that of her husband.
When I contacted the Eastern Cape home affairs branch which processed my marriage, the official asked whether I loved my husband. Obviously, I didn’t love him if I wanted to keep my name.
What followed was a lengthy process to try and change the system. I found more than 200 women who had also had their names changed, despite ticking the box stating that they wanted to keep their birth name.
For me, it almost cost me the chance to vote. Others pay in work days lost as they have to go and fight (yes, fight) with home affairs officials to change it back. Sometimes they have to pay a fee. Sometimes, women discover their new name when they have a child, whose unabridged birth certificate lists her as having a different name. One woman found out when she was about to board a plane overseas. She was barred from boarding.
In 2016, Wild and a number of other women approached the Legal Resources Centre, who helped them to get their names changed back.
Home Affairs also assured them that the system would change.
Since then, more than 30 women have contacted me asking for assistance to get their names changed back to their pre-marriage names. In the last few weeks, the messages have been concerning:
“A HA official I spoke to just now said they would change it back if I bring an affidavit explaining my reason for wanting to keep it. And my husband must submit one too, stating he ‘gives consent’ for me to retain my maiden surname. This is ridiculous but I have to do it as it affects my UIF/maternity leave claims,” one woman wrote to me.
Another said: “I wanted to change my name back to my birth surname and I require both my father and stepfather’s written permission. It’s literally the name on my birth certificate and first passport. Still need the men to allow me to do it!”
Yet another said on Twitter: “This happened to me too, and when I went to @homeaffairsZA to get it changed back, they first asked if my husband was OK with it and then wanted to phone my father to check. So… that was fun.”
Home Affairs’ actions and attitude suggests that women need male consent to make decisions about their lives.
This strips them of their dignity and fundamental rights as equal South African citizens.
It’s nothing short of blatant sexism and speaks to a patriarchal undertone that still permeates so much of South African society, politics, and, clearly, administration.
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