“I never thought I would marry a foreigner, let alone live in a different country,” Sarona Reddy a 34-year-old law graduate from Durban, tells me over Skype from Germany. In the background her husband Andy picks up their baby daughter, bundles her up and tells her to say, “Tschüss, Mama,” (“Bye, mom,”) as they head out into the snow. Reddy blows them a kiss goodbye and turns back to the screen. “I would love for my daughter to spend more time with my parents but they only get to see her once or twice a year.”
As travel and telecoms become cheaper, the world is growing smaller. Thanks to instant messaging and video calling, chance meetings and holiday romances are more likely to transform into serious relationships. This was the case with Andy and Sarona, who met randomly at an art exhibition at Durban’s Point Waterfront while Andy was a medical intern.
Statistics from several countries show a rise in international marriage. According to a report in the Economist
, in 2010 over 10 percent of marriages in South Korea included a foreigner. In France, international marriages reached 16 percent in 2009. Local numbers are scarce, but one estimate
put the share of South African men married to foreign women in 2000 at 3,3 percent.
Just because marrying a foreigner has become more common, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s become more simple, though.
Reddy says the cultural adjustments were big. “Indian families don’t really recognise personal space whereas Germans take that very seriously. We have different views of tradition and raising children. In Germany, I have to keep explaining things like my South African Indian history.”
The biggest adjustment though has been being away from her family. “I would love for my daughter to spend more time with my parents but they only get to see her once or twice a year.”
And there are no easy answers. “Wherever we are, one of us is going to be away from family.”
Marriages that cross borders and cultures face many difficulties, not least of which is an administration system that can make being together almost impossible.
In the year before their marriage, Reddy’s husband, a medical doctor, was unable to work in the country. The process to get the approvals he needed to work here dragged on for so long that he eventually abandoned it. They had planned to leave for Germany after the wedding anyway but Reddy saw it as a missed opportunity for the country. “He trained as a doctor in Germany – he could have been using his skills to help in South Africa,” she says.
They consider themselves lucky compared to other cross-border couples, though. After all, it’s not uncommon here for a foreign partner to wait years for a work or spousal permit.
First, there’s the stigma of being a foreigner. Rebecca Kaissi* and her Moroccan husband Ilyas know this all too well. One of the toughest challenges they faced was not being supported by family and community. Many people believed Ilyas was just “in it for the papers”.
Language was another obstacle. “Things are often said and interpreted totally differently,” says Kaissi.
And then there was the admin. Kaissi says she’s had to support her husband financially for nearly 10 years while he was on a spousal permit because of delays at Home Affairs.
“It was a real emotional struggle,” she says of their application for her husband’s permanent residency. “I mean we had almost been married for a decade and we had a child together and when the new visa laws came out in 2014, I thought it was all going to fall apart.”
The new laws clamped down on spousal or life-partner visas, which the government believed were being abused. Suddenly, couples applying for a temporary residency had to prove they’d been in a relationship for at least two years and those applying for a permanent residency had to prove they’ve been in a relationship for five years.
“I’m really hoping this comes to an end soon so that he can move on with his life; get proper work, study, open a bank account, get a driver’s license, all the things we take for granted,” says Kaissi.
Nikki Schöntauf, a South African marketing lecturer told HuffPost SA that her family is being forced to consider leaving South Africa because her German husband’s permanent residency was denied after two years of waiting.
Schöntauf says she spent thousands of rands on the process and on hiring an immigration specialist, only for her husband’s residency to be denied because of an error at Home Affairs. She says that eight months later, her appeal has not been acknowledged.
“It was our dream to live in South Africa, but we are at the mercy of a system that is messing with people’s lives with no accountability.”
John Arries, a senior case manager at New World Immigration, an immigration agency based in Cape Town, told HuffPost SA that delays on the adjudication of primary residency applications for foreign spouses have “extended beyond the 8- to 12-month window”. “No specific communication has been given as to the reason for the delay,” says Arries.
Some processes can also be contradictory he says. For example, a foreign spouse might be asked to show “reciprocal financial support” –- basically they have to show that they’re also contributing financially in the marriage — but this might not be possible if the visa they have doesn’t allow them to work here in the first place. An application could be rejected on this basis and an appeal process could take up to 16 months, he says.
These lengthy delays can drive couples to desperation.
Adeela Vahed* a businessperson in Johannesburg, said that when the system barred her husband from the country, she became so desperate that she considered trying to have him smuggled back in.
Vahed says when her husband refused to pay a bribe at OR Tambo International Airport, his legally obtained life-partner visa was stamped “cancelled”.
“Legally he was on the system but the actual visa was no longer effective,” she says. For months, she had to travel back and forth between Egypt and South Africa to visit her husband, leaving her children behind with family, until the matter was resolved and he was allowed back into the country.
Melinda Smith*, a South African married to a German, had a similar experience. She says that when her husband applied for a spousal visa, a Home Affairs official expressed open contempt for foreigners and told them his child would marry a foreigner “over his dead body”. Months later, when he passed through OR Tambo, officials told him there were problems with his visa and that there were ways to “make the process go faster”.
Nadia Paruk* a marketing salesperson, says her husband, who is Jordanian, was also detained at OR Tambo, threatened with deportation and asked to pay a bribe. The experience was traumatic. “He was a legal citizen but he was treated like a prisoner. How can this happen?” she asks.
Schöntauf and Vahed say that because of the administrative hurdles, they’re seriously considering leaving South Africa to live in their spouse’s home country.
With nearly 7,000 fraudulent marriages
recorded in South Africa from 2007 to 2010, Reddy the law graduate says she understands why there are laws to keep South Africans safe from dubious marriage proposals. It’s the implementation that needs to be reviewed, she says.
Despite the personal sacrifices, the costs and the often overwhelming legal issues, these couples say they would keep fighting for the relationship.
“You have to know what you’re getting yourself into,” says Reddy. “I made this choice and I knew there were going to be struggles.” These challenges, she says, have made her relationship with her husband stronger.
Kaissi agrees. “If I had to do it again I would. The process showed me that, if both people are committed, no matter what is thrown your way, any marriage can be a success.”
As we say our goodbyes over Skype and Reddy prepares for her cold commute to teach legal English to Germans , she adds as an afterthought: “It is hard. Sometimes when I say goodbye to our families at the airport I feel sad. Then my husband tells me, remember when you had to stay behind and I had to leave? Now we don’t have to do that anymore. We’re together.”
The department of home affairs did not respond to requests for comment. This story will be updated should a response be received.
*Names have been changed