Christy Chitengu: The young lawyer fighting for the rights of stateless people.
Christy Chitengu was born in Joburg, South Africa, to Zimbabwean parents. In a world unencumbered with politics and bureaucracy, this would just be a fact of geography. However, her mother was and still is an undocumented migrant, which automatically made Christy a stateless person, as she is neither legally recognised as Zimbabwean or South African. This fact has caused a life-long insecurity and has ultimately influenced her career trajectory: today Christy is an attorney with a special interest in immigration and refugee law.
Growing up, she says she felt like she had to watch over her shoulder and try and fit in with her friends because on paper she was not South African. Her childhood coincided with a moment when widespread xenophobic violence reared its head in South Africa for the first time. “I was in primary school, and I found myself always disputing my Zimbabwean heritage.”Today she no longer distances herself from her contentious national identity, and she is passionate about migrant rights. “My research for my masters is around statelessness or people who are not recognised as citizens of any country by the law."
"I feel like I will have made it in my career if the thousands of people who are born in South Africa to foreign parents could get South African citizenship.”
Christy’s mother arrived in South Africa prior to its democracy in 1994. She worked as a waitress, and both Christy and her sister’s education were mostly funded by the tips she earned. Her mother was adamant that they attend the best schools; a decision which came at a great cost. Christy recalls an outstanding school fee bill of over R200,000 for her sister, even before Christy was due to enroll in high school two years later. They persevered as her mother believed it was the only way to secure success: an education cannot be taken away and is therefore worth the investment.
Her family life was at times tumultuous. Christy found solace in reading and escaped through the aid of afterschool programmes. At 13, Christy had an opportunity to write and publish articles in mainstream media through an organisation called the Children's News Agency. She describes an incident where she and her friends, fueled with a new understanding of injustice but not yet grasping the social tensions of the world they inhabited, published an article titled ‘Class war looms because of racism in schools’ in the Saturday Star. Their excitement and moment of accomplishment was cut short when the teenagers were called in to the principal’s office. They were pressured to reveal their sources and write an apology for insinuating that the teachers were racist, to be displayed in the staff room. Not appreciating the irony of the situation, the school’s leadership asked the Children’s News Agency to retract the statement. They retracted it, but put all the parties involved in touch with Section 27, an advocacy group that could mediate the relationship between the school and the budding young writers.
Section 27 helped the students broker an agreement with the school to rewrite the Code of Conduct with consultation from all the learners. The story ended triumphantly, and this interaction with the law opened Christy’s eyes to a career prospect she hadn’t considered. When asked what excites her about the law, she says it is the influence lawyers have in shaping a country and indirectly controlling national narratives. “The government can have an agenda and a policy document that they take through parliament, but if it’s unconstitutional or lacking, or not properly enforced, lawyers then have the skills to approach the courts to force governments and parliamentarians to do certain things.”
Migration and solving the crisis of statelessness is a top priority for Christy. In 2013, a new law was passed in the citizenship act. It said that children born to foreign parents and who could prove that they've lived in South Africa their whole lives are entitled to citizenship. However, Home Affairs has been slow to enforce this law, despite court orders pressuring them to do so.
There are currently only eight people born in South Africa to foreign parents who qualify for South African citizenship. These eight people have been able to access that right because they took up their fight directly with the courts. Seeing that number rise, she says, is what will make her feel she has achieved success.
As a leader, Christy is inspired by the late Steve Biko for his unconventional yet impactful approach to addressing a human rights crisis. In apartheid South Africa, where the laws actively suppressed black people in every aspect of life, he made famous the phrase Black is beautiful. “Biko felt the need to do the work of challenging people's thinking, and how black people perceive themselves. Even in my advocacy about migrant children born in South Africa, a big aspect is psychological citizenship, where you feel like you belong in your mind without a paper dictating who you are.”
Christy reiterates that while she may require the validation of the right documentation for admin purposes, she feels she is South African and believes that she is deserving of citizenship. The existing bureaucratic structures that are external do not undermine her claim, and her psychological birthright. This is the selfreflective leadership style shewants to embody, in the tradition of Steve Biko’s work with the black consciousness movement.
As a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, Christy says she has regained her confidence and her belief in her ability to lead. “I was always uncomfortable with being placed in a position to lead others,” she says. She is overcoming her fear of not knowing enough or that people can see through her. Being recognised by the MRF and having the opportunity to identify her strengths and capabilities has reignited her determination to become an intentional and conscious leader."