She lived a full life, with a promising career at a bank and a happy home. She and her partner had big dreams – they were looking forward to a future together as husband and wife and her little girl was growing up fast.
But Nomathamsanqa Swartbooi’s dreams were snuffed out in a heartbeat when she learnt she was “married” to a man she didn’t know from a bar of soap. Her identity had been stolen – and so began over a decade of frustration and heartache for the Johannesburg woman.
Thami, as everyone calls her, discovered the shocking news when she went to cast her vote in the 2006 municipal elections. To her dismay officials told her that her surname had been changed on the voters’ roll. Thami Swartbooi was now Thami Nofemeli.
For the next 13 years she became locked in a standoff with home affairs in a desperate effort to reclaim her identity and prove she wasn’t married. And for 13 years the door was slammed in her face. It was only last month she managed to get her identity back when the new minister of home affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi, intervened after her story started making waves in the media.
“How do you explain the fact that after fighting for 13 years, this matter gets resolved just three days after appearing in the media?” she says angrily.
“All of a sudden they have answers.”
It’s been a long and trying journey for Thami (43). While she’s glad the matter has finally been resolved, she can’t help feeling betrayed by the department whose mission it is to safeguard the identity of citizens.
After the shock at the voting station Thami, who lives in Finetown, Joburg South, wasted no time reporting the matter to home affairs. Officials told her she’d supposedly tied the knot in 2005 and that the union was valid.
“They asked me to give them six months to a year to resolve the problem because the matter was ‘difficult’.”
Months passed and still she remained without an identity. Thami hasn’t been able to get her driver’s licence and wasn’t able to vote in any post-2006 elections. She also wasn’t able to marry her partner, John Tshiwo (45).
He’d paid lobola but because she had no valid ID they couldn’t take matters any further.
“You just live a meaningless life. It’s like you don’t exist,” she says.
The crisis deepened when Thami discovered she no longer qualified for credit. The mystery woman who stole her ID, who’s being sought by home affairs and believed to be married to Thami’s false husband, was running up debt in her name, opening accounts and getting loans.
“I was blacklisted,” Thami says. “Every time I wanted to open a clothing account I was refused.
“At Foschini I was told I had a lay-by. I was so shocked.”
The administrative complications of Thami’s situation caused untold problems. In 2008 she gave birth to her son, Lwando, and was excited that her daughter, Masibulele (now 18), had a sibling. But the little boy’s arrival only brought more stress as she was unable to register his birth.
“I was told if I wanted to register him, he’d have to take the surname I was fighting to free myself of,” Thami says.
She couldn’t claim any maternity benefits either.
When Lwando was two, the family discovered he had speech problems and took him to hospital in the hope of getting him examined. But mother and son were turned away because the little boy had no birth certificate. “And we didn’t have the money to take him to a private hospital.”
When the time came for Lwando to go to Grade R she was relieved that a school in the Joburg CBD where they were living was prepared to overlook the fact that he didn’t have a birth certificate and accept him. His mom could fill in the requisite paperwork once she’d sorted out her nightmare, they said.
“They were gracious,” Thami says.
In 2014 the family was forced to move from the city centre to Finetown because they could no longer afford rent. They wanted to enrol Lwando in a local school but he was refused because of the birth certificate issue, so Thami now has to spend R40 a day on transport and R940 a month on school fees for him.
Money has been tight since she lost her job at Absa, where she was a promising temporary employee, having started as a call-centre agent and then moved to the administration department. She was on track to being appointed permanently but her prospects plummeted when the company checked her credit record.
“What’s most painful is that I started the department with the manager. Six people were hired after me and I trained them. “They were taken on permanently, and I was left out in the cold.”
She went to job interviews but was rejected at every turn because of her credit score.
“It became the story of my life.”
Thami hasn’t been able to work for eight years and the family survives on what her partner makes as a technician. Without work Thami redoubled her efforts at trying to solve the problem.
“I saw it as my job to now go to home affairs. The staff knew me there. When they saw me they’d say, ‘Here comes trouble’.
“Some of them would tell me, ‘Don’t make your problem our problem’, or they’d just tell me to stand there and I’d wait for hours.”
There were times when she broke down and wept in front of them. “That place was hell. They don’t care.”
Thami sent emails to former home affairs ministers but nothing helped.
“I even tweeted [ former home affairs minister Malusi] Gigaba until he blocked me.”
Eventually she approached the Wits Law Clinic, which took Thami’s plight to the media and finally action was taken. She received her smart ID card recently and home affairs has said it will give her an official letter to present to debtors explaining that someone had been impersonating her. This should lift the blacklisting.
Lwando has finally received a birth certificate, 10 years after his birth, which has overjoyed his mother.
“I am genuinely happy for my son. It really touched my heart, even more so than when I received my ID.”
But Thami remains bitter. “Home affairs may think they have resolved this, but I’m left with scars.
“The phone still rings nonstop from people saying I owe them money. Others are looking for my so-called husband. “Home affairs destroyed my life.”
Minister of home affairs Aaron Motsoaledi has apologised “profusely” to Thami for her years of hell.
“I don’t know whether she can ever find it in her heart to forgive [us]. What she went through was terrible. The issue I’m apologizing about is that it took too long.”
The department of home affairs is continuing its investigations into the circumstances surrounding Thami’s case.