South African nationality law

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South Africa rewrote its nationality law since the end of Apartheid in 1994 and the establishment of majority rule in the country under the African National Congress. The 1995 South African Citizenship Act did away with the previous Apartheid-era 1949 and 1970 acts which had established separate bantustan citizenship to the country's African majority and inferior levels of citizenship to the country's Asian and coloured minorities.

Citizenship by birth[edit]

According to Chapter 2 of the 1995 law, anyone who was considered to be a "citizen by birth" prior to the enactment of the law or who is born in the Republic on or after the enactment of the law is a citizen by birth. Also, a person is a "citizen by birth" if they can be considered a citizen by descent and at the time of birth at least one parent was: 1) in the service of the government, 2) was employed by a person or group located in the Republic, or 3) was in the service of an international organization in which South Africa had membership. [1]

There is an exception to the birthright citizenship provision: those born to visiting foreign diplomats or their employees, or nonresident aliens are not considered to be "citizens by birth" (unless their other parent is a citizen, in which case they are a citizen by birth).

Citizenship by descent[edit]

Under the 1995 law, a person born outside South Africa to a South African parent is a South African citizen by descent upon registration of the birth under South African law.


Under Section 5 of the 1995 act, Citizenship can be acquired by adults through naturalisation if the following conditions are met:

  • Valid residence permit or Certificate of Exemption;
  • One year of ordinary residence in South Africa prior to the application for naturalisation;
  • Four years of physical (actual) residence in South Africa during the eight years before the application for naturalisation, excluding the year of ordinary residence;
  • In the case of an applicant for naturalisation being married in a spousal relationship with a South African citizen, two years of permanent residence and two years of marriage/spousal relationship to the South African citizen spouse prior to the application;
  • Be of good and sound character;
  • Intend to remain resident in South Africa, work for a South African government, work in an international organisation in which South Africa is a member, or work for a person or organisation resident or established in South Africa;
  • Be able to communicate in any one of South Africa's official languages satisfactorily;
  • Have adequate knowledge of the duties and responsibilities of a South African citizen.

Naturalisation of an adult also confers South African citizenship upon that adult's minor children.

Loss of citizenship by naturalised South Africans[edit]

Naturalised South Africans who left South Africa before 6 October 1988 and did not obtain a 'Letter of Exemption' from the South African authorities may have lost South African citizenship after seven years absence.

Visa free travel[edit]

Visa requirements for South African citizens
  South Africa
  Visa on arrival
  Electronic visa available
  Pre-approved visa pick up on arrival
  Visa required

Visa requirements for South African citizens are administrative entry restrictions by the authorities of other states placed on citizens of South Africa. In 2017, South African citizens had visa-free or visa on arrival access to 98 countries and territories, ranking the South African passport 55th in the world according to the Visa Restrictions Index.

Dual nationality[edit]

Prior to 2004, South Africa in principle did not recognise the multiple citizenship of its nationals unless the citizen applied for an exemption or permission letter under a 1995 law permitting South African citizens to travel using foreign passports.

Since 2004, South African dual nationals may travel without hindrance as long as they enter and leave South Africa on their South African passports. Dual nationals may petition for temporary, emergency or "permanent" South African passports for this purpose.

However, a South African citizen who by a formal and voluntary act acquires the citizenship of another country, automatically loses his or her South African citizenship unless they apply for, and receive permission to retain their South African citizenship before acquiring the citizenship of another country[1]. A naturalised citizen however cannot apply for such a retention. There is not a specific requirement to do so if residing in South Africa or if the claim is inevitable such as possessing the Right of Abode to the UK then registering as a British Citizen.

South African citizens under the age of eighteen (18) years are exempt and do not require permission as long as they acquire the foreign citizenship before their eighteen (18th) birthday. They automatically retain their South African citizenship for life unless; once they have reached the age of 18 and they then wish to acquire a further foreign citizenship. They will then have to apply for prior permission to retain their South African citizenship – failing to do so, they will automatically lose their South African citizenship.[2]

Many South Africans have claims to another citizenship (see: Demographics of South Africa).

British nationality[edit]

  • Prior to 1 January 1949, South Africans were regarded as British subjects under United Kingdom law if they were born in South Africa or any other Commonwealth such as the UK itself which also applied in South Africa as it derived from the United Kingdom law. The British Nationality Law was expanded after this time. See British nationality law.
  • Between 1 January 1949 and 1 September 1949, South Africans remained British subjects without citizenship unless they had already acquired citizenship of the UK & Colonies or another Commonwealth country.

Citizenship of the UK and its colonies[edit]

  • On 2 September 1949, most British subjects from South Africa acquired South African citizenship.
  • Those who did not become South African generally became citizens of the UK & Colonies provided that they had no connections with any other Commonwealth country or Ireland. Such persons would only have acquired British citizenship in 1983 if they had acquired a right of abode in the UK at the time. Otherwise they would have become British Overseas citizens. Such people acquired British Citizenship as they remained British Subjects prior to the revolution of the nationality act.
  • Those of an ethnic Indian or Pakistani background who were British subjects before 1949, but did not acquire South African citizenship in 1949, may have remained British subjects without citizenship. See Indian nationality law
  • British Overseas citizens and British subjects who have no other nationality, and have not lost or renounced another nationality since 4 July 2002, may register as British citizens under s4B of the British Nationality Act 1981 without requiring UK residence. This facility has been available since 30 April 2003. Those who have immigrated to the UK may have additional options for acquiring British citizenship such as naturalization or registration as a British Citizen.

Citizenship between 1949 and 1961[edit]

Between 1949 and 1961, all South African citizens remained British subjects by virtue of their South African citizenship as South Africa remianed a self-governing Colony of tbe UK.

This was ended in 1961 when South Africa left the Commonwealth. By the time South Africa returned to the Commonwealth in 1994, the phrase British subject had been replaced by Commonwealth citizen.

Right of abode in the United Kingdom[edit]

Right of Abode is the authority for its holder to remain in the UK indefinitely subject to satisfying certain requirements. Holders of Right of Abode must have a Certificate of Entitlement as proof that their right exists. Those who hold the ROE may be a Commonwealth Citizen (excluding UK) or a UK National such as a British Subject or British Citizen. Unlike British Citizenship which contains the Right of Abode, the Right of Abode as another Commonwealth Citizen can be revoked in cases such as criminal conduct.

As South Africa was a foreign country (under United Kingdom law) between 1 January 1973, the date the Immigration Act 1971 came into force in the UK, and 1 January 1983 (when the British Nationality Act 1981 came into force) South Africans cannot have right of abode in the UK unless they also hold citizenship of another Commonwealth country or of the UK itself. A Commonwealth country refers to any country within the Commonwealth, for instance, Australia, New Zealand or Canada.

This particularly affects South Africans born before 1983 with a UK-born mother, who would otherwise usually have had the right of abode in the UK.

However, the changes to British nationality law on 30 April 2003 have allowed those born in South Africa between 8 February 1961 and 31 December 1982 to a UK-born or naturalised mother to apply for registration as a British citizen by descent. With this comes a right of abode in the UK. This concession is not specific to South African citizens as this applies to all countries including non-Commonwealth realms. It remains very difficult to obtain many documents for registration as nationality was not considered something of great significance prior to 1983, thus many misplaced their documents which could very well help many apply for Registration as a British Citizen by Descent.

It is important to note that entering the UK or applying for a UK Visa is particularly difficult as South Africa was not always part of the Commonwealth. The individuals particularly affected are those born to British mothers. The rule of who can possess the Right of Abode is very controversial but in most instances, those who apply for a Certificate of Entitlement generally have their applications refused due to not being a Commonwealth Citizens for their entirety which then leaves them in a difficult situation whereby their claim to register as a British Citizen by Descent or obtain a Certificate of Entitlement is to no avail and their UK Standard Visa (C) is usually refused due to officer being of these restrictions.

Right of Abode is possible to obtain by double descent where either the parent has the Right of Abode or is some form of a British National, this will ultinately enable the grandchild to apply for British Citzenship or obtain the Right of Abode but the parent would have to become British / obtain ROE during a certain time.

As South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth, those born to British mothers fully possess the Right of Abode if they were born after that period (period of rejoining).

Commonwealth citizenship[edit]

Following South Africa's return to the Commonwealth in 1994, South Africans are treated as Commonwealth citizens in the United Kingdom. This includes the following benefits:

  • eligibility for the UK Working Holiday Visa scheme (no longer available since November 2008)[2]
  • eligibility for the UK Ancestry Visa (for those with a UK-born grandparent). This is five year's entry clearance which enables the holder to eventually apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain/ Enter (Permanent Residence) after five years of stay the eventually British Citizenship after a waiting period of one-year. Children of the qualifier are required to join UK Ancestry Visa as a delendent prior to their eighteenth otherwise they will not be able to join thr qualifier in the UK.
  • the right, if resident in the UK, to vote and hold public office in the UK
  • the right to posses a British Emergency passport as a South African Citizen (Commonwealth) which is valid for one-year when there is no South African consulate or other Commonwealth consulate available.

There are no specific concessions in terms of eligibility for British citizenship, and South Africans must meet the same rules for registration or naturalisation as citizens of any other country.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "South African Citizenship Act" (PDF). South African Government. 
  2. ^ "UK Working Holidays – A Thing of the Past for SA". 20 November 2008. Archived from the original on 15 February 2009. Retrieved 2012-06-13. 

External links[edit]