Free at last… Relief as divorce granted to marriage fraud victim

An estimated 2,000 people fall victim to marriage fraud each year in South Africa.

FILE: Elize O’Brien. Picture: Abigail Javier/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG – After a wait of more than a decade, a Reiger Park woman will finally get the divorce she’s been longing for. But this is not a love story gone sour. Rather, Elize O'Brien is one of the estimated 2,000 people who fall victim to marriage fraud each year in South Africa.

When O'Brien tried to register the birth of her child, she discovered to her horror that she was officially listed as married to a total stranger whom she’d neither agreed to marry or even met.

O’Brien lives in a small informal dwelling in Reiger Park, Boksburg. Her life has been turned upside down because of several court battles she's been forced to fight just to get her independence back.

According to Home Affairs records, she's listed as married to Khaled Elshahhat Aly.

O'Brien told Eyewitness News she'd been trying to open accounts and access services in her name and blocking her from marrying the man she's been in love with for over 12 years.

“I don't even know how he looks. Nothing. That's why they did an investigation by Home Affairs with their private investigators. The marriage was done without my permission.”

FROM THE ARCHIVES: 'I feel like I've been robbed of my life’

The father of her daughter left her when he learnt she was married to this person - realising that they would be unable to be legally married any time soon.

“I told him I wasn't part of this marriage, it's going to take a few years for me to resolve this... then he moved on with his life.”

But the love of her life and father of her second child also can't marry her. “He is still with me. We've been together for 12 years now. If he (Khaled Elshahhat Aly) can divorce me, I can go tomorrow and get married.”

With the help of her lawyers, O'Brien has won a case in the High Court in Pretoria compelling the Home Affairs Department to effect her divorce.

On her marriage certificate, the date of birth and identity number of her so-called husband is left blank, suggesting unscrupulous officials were involved.

Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said the department was planning to have fully migrated to a new system be the end of December, which he hoped would cut down the number of people finding themselves married off to complete strangers.

Motsoaledi conceded that its current data base had many weaknesses, among them that it had no record of foreign nationals’ marriage or death certificates.

"It's a very painful thing, but Home Affairs deals with more than 2,000 cases on a yearly basis of this type of marriage," said Motsoaledi.

But how did this state of affairs come to be, and what can be done about it?

According to the minister, one of the ways in which fraudulent activity is carried out is through collaboration between a fraudster and a corrupt Home Affairs official, who access the system using the official’s password. But when the authorities then try to make any arrests, officials provide a medical certificate to prove they were off sick that day.

In order to prevent such activity, the department is now using a system called biometric access control movement, which requires an official's fingerprint, not a password.

Motsoaledi explained that a second way by which marriage fraud occurs is when those desperate for a job opportunity give all their details to a bogus recruiting agency, which is actually stealing their identity to marry them off to a foreign national.

The minister said a new system – the Automatic Biometric Information System (ABIS) - includes extra layers of security identification, requiring an ID photo, fingerprint, images of your unique irises of your eyes, palm prints and heel prints for children.

The department aims to transfer all the data of the 47 million registered citizens to the new ABIS system by the end of the year.

In other instances of marriage fraud, people marry a foreign national to allow them to gaincitizenship in exchange for money - only to find out that they can't get divorced easily.

In order to counter this, Home Affairs no longer allows just one person to register a marriage by showing documents and both parties are now required to be present.

“All those things will eliminate this type of fraud. It disadvantages people, but the reason why it took 15 years (for O'Brien) might be that she's going to wrong officials,” said Motsoaledi.

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