'I was a prisoner in this country' - Limpopo man sues home affairs for R400m after identity theft

Dr Mohammad Zaman. (Onkgopotse Koloti)
Dr Mohammad Zaman. (Onkgopotse Koloti)

He had it all – a successful medical career, thriving businesses, health and happiness – and life was as good as he’d ever hoped it could be.

Until the day Dr Mohammad Zaman, from Mokopane in Limpopo, discovered he no longer existed – and like a puff of smoke, everything he’d built up vanished before his eyes.

The theft of his identity brought the 55-year-old to the brink and he is now suing the department of home affairs for R400m.

The theft left him, to all intents and purposes, a nonentity in the eyes of government, financial institutions and business.

Even if he manages to get home affairs to cough up in compensation for what he’s endured over the past 13 years, it won’t make him happy.

“My life’s a mess,” he says.

YOU met Mohammad at the home of a family friend where he, his wife, Mamoona (43), and their three teenage children are staying.

Relying on the goodwill of friends and family is a far cry from what he used to have.

“I lived a life of luxury,” he says. “I owned a lot of properties, I had a good relationship with financial institutions and I was a reliable prospect for them to do business with.”

But when he returned to South Africa in 2006 after spending a year practising as a doctor in Canada, banks were no longer interested in doing business with him.

He soon discovered his identity document had been cloned.

“Home affairs officials came to my office one day and took me to the department. They told me I had two identity documents. That was a shock to me.”

The officials informed him the name in his ID book had been changed to Farook Mohammad in 2005.

“This meant Mohammad Zaman no longer existed. I was suddenly Farook Mohammad with an ID number that started with 61, meaning I was born in 1961. But I was born in 1964. Technically, I no longer existed.”

Mohammad told them he’d been overseas for the year 2005 and hadn’t changed his document, but they didn’t believe him.

The shock worsened when he was told he couldn’t get his real identity back.

“I said I need an ID, and they said, no, I can’t get it. I’m nobody.”

Mohammad immigrated to South Africa in 1991 from Pakistan where he’d qualified as a GP. He successfully applied for a work permit the following year and worked at two hospitals in Limpopo before moving to Johannesburg to further his studies at Wits University.

He later settled in Mokopane, became a naturalised South African citizen in 2002 and was issued with an ID book.

In addition to running his medical practice, he ventured into business, buying property and owning warehouses and hardware stores.

Then came the opportunity to work in Canada for a year. When he returned, he had to re-register as a medical practitioner as the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) makes it compulsory for doctors to register every year.

That was when he discovered his ID number no longer existed and his bank accounts had been frozen.

“I was a dead man walking. I didn’t exist. I was a John Doe.”

The years that followed were a bureaucratic nightmare. Mohammad spent his days at the home affairs office in Polokwane, being sent from pillar to post.

He was unable to work and had to rely on the kindness and charity of friends and family. “I couldn’t even get a cellphone contract or renew my driver’s licence. My life was shattered.”

Because he couldn’t run his businesses, he was sequestrated in 2010.

“I lost everything. I had properties and businesses worth R60m.”

In 2011 he reported his case to the Hawks who referred it to home affairs for investigation. Mohammad started asking local lawyers to take up his case, but they told him it was too complicated.

That year Mohammad had a heart attack and Mamoona sank into depression.

Then home affairs issued an investigative report saying it couldn’t find any reason to justify his identity being amended.

In 2012 attorney Maribe Mamabolo, who’s since died, finally took on Mohammad’s case and in 2014 succeeded in getting a court order to force home affairs to issue him with a new ID.

But the department didn’t and his new lawyer, Maupye Mashamaite, went back to court and secured an order finding home affairs in contempt of court. An ID was eventually issued to Mohammad in 2016.

Giving up was not an option, Mohammad says. “My wife said I’d never get my ID back but I told her it was my right and I’d never stop fighting for it.”

During the years that he was effectively a nonperson, he lost many loved ones in Pakistan, including his mother.

“I couldn’t pay my last respects,” he says. “I was a prisoner in this country. When I finally got my ID I immediately travelled to Pakistan to see my family.

They’d been crying for me for many years.” His problems are far from over, though.

“Every morning on my way to mosque I walk past the house I used to live in. There’s a nice shop there now, and the new owner is making money. I don’t have a single thing left.”

Mohammad had another heart attack this year and his physical and mental wellbeing have suffered to such an extent he “can’t cope with the challenges of life anymore”.

Even if he wins his lawsuit against home affairs, the R400m won’t bring him much joy.

“My life is basically gone. My health, respect and dignity are all gone.” He hopes his story will inspire others in the same position not to give up.

“If you lose your ID, take it seriously. You don’t want to suffer as I have.”

Home affairs media manager David Hlabane says the department can’t comment on matters before court “as a matter of principle”.

“Only after this process has unfolded will we be in a position to discuss it.”

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