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No matter where you go, and what you do; once a South African citizen always a South African citizen, right? Wrong. There are a number of ways in which South Africans can lose their citizenship – even without being aware of it. If you’re one of hundreds of thousands of Saffers living abroad, here are three things you need to know about your South African citizenship, including how you can lose it and what you’ll need to do to get it back.

The three ways to gain South African citizenship

This topic is a legislative one governed by the South African Citizenship Act 88 of 1995, which was amended by the South African Citizenship Amendment Act of 2010, bringing with it updated paperwork requirements for applications pertaining to citizenship. According to the Act, citizenship can only be acquired in one of three ways:

  • By birth
  • By descent
  • By naturalisation.

You can lose your South African citizenship without even knowing about it. Scary stuff!

Many South Africans lose theirs when they apply for citizenship of another country, without being aware of it. This can be quite an alarming discovery, especially if you only learn about it long after you’ve obtained foreign citizenship abroad. 

Important side note: Bear in mind that South African citizens by birth, who automatically lost their South African citizenship, never lose their right to Permanent Residence in South Africa. Should they permanently return to South Africa, they will be able to apply for the resumption of their South African citizenship from within the Country.

What does this mean? Unless retention of your South African citizenship is granted before you acquire another citizenship, the result of such acquisition is the automatic loss of your South African citizenship if you happen to be over the age of 18 and:

  • You’ve obtained citizenship in another country by a voluntary act of an official nature, other than marriage; or
  • You are serving in the armed forces of another country (where you are also a citizen) and that country is at war with South Africa.

While the second qualification doesn’t have much relevance, the first is worth discussing. In terms of Section 6 of our Citizenship Act, South Africans are obliged to seek permission to hold on to their South African citizenship (and accordingly their right to the South African passport, and the right to vote in South African elections – a big deal for expats living abroad!) before applying for an additional citizenship. Failure to do so means that your South African citizenship falls away, automatically.

For every rule, there’s an exception.

South African citizens under the age of 18 years are exempt and will not need to apply for dual citizenship, as long as they acquire the foreign citizenship before their 18th birthday. This citizenship is automatically retained for life unless, once they have reached the age of 18 years and they then wish to acquire a further foreign citizenship. Here, they will then have to apply for prior permission to retain their South African citizenship. Failure to do so means automatic loss of South African citizenship.

Luckily, there is a way to avoid losing your South African citizenship.

If you’re a South African living abroad, and you’re toying with the idea of applying for citizenship in the country you’re currently residing in, it’s important to seek and obtain permission from the Department of Home Affairs before you start the paperwork on your foreign citizenship application. Remember: failure to do so means an automatic loss of South African citizenship. Fortunately, Dual citizenship is possible, if you follow the rules.

Take to heart on your next trip home that it is an offence in terms of the South African Citizenship Act for a South African citizen with dual citizenship to enter or depart the Republic on a foreign passport. Once you have dual citizenship, you’re free to use your foreign passport as you please abroad, but you must always enter and depart South Africa on your valid South African passport.

Here’s the lowdown on what you need to know about the rules:

  • The rules contained in Section 6 of the Citizenship Act applies to all South African citizens over the age of 18 – yes, even to you.
  • You must apply and be granted permission to retain your South African citizenship prior to the acquisition of a foreign citizenship.
  • You will know you have completed this process successfully when you are holding a “Letter of Retention” in your hands.
  • Without this letter, you will automatically lose your South African citizenship on voluntary acquisition of a foreign citizenship.

If you’re facing the realisation that you’re no longer as South African as you thought you were, thanks to an automatic loss of South African citizenship, you’ll be relieved to know that you may apply to have your South African citizenship reinstated. Phew!

Good news. You can apply to get your South African citizenship back.

You are eligible to apply to have your South African citizenship reinstated if you are a former citizen by birth or descent and you have returned to South Africa permanently or you are living on South African soil on a full time basis. 

If your former citizenship was obtained by naturalisation, you will need to re-apply for permanent residence or alternatively, apply for exemption thereto before you can be considered for resumption of citizenship.

What do you need to apply for resumption of South African citizenship?

  • To have completed Forms DHA-175 and DHA-52.
  • To have completed application for identity document Form DHA-9.
  • Submit 2 photos that comply with the Passport and ID Photograph specs.
  • Provide proof of residence to verify that you live in South Africa permanently (like a municipal account) plus a copy thereof.
  • Attach your marriage certificate (if applicable) and copy thereof.
  • Payment of the prescribed processing fee.

But wait. You might be exempt from loss of South African citizenship.

If you lost your South African citizenship through the acquisition of a foreign citizenship before 6 October 1995, you are eligible to apply for an exemption from the loss. To apply for this exemption, you’ll need:

  • To have completed application Form DHA-1666 and DHA-529.
  • To have paid the prescribed processing fee.

What if you want to renounce your South African citizenship?

If you are already a dual citizen or your intention is to acquire citizenship in another country, you may wish to apply for renunciation of your SA citizenship.

To renounce your South African citizenship, all you need is:

  • To have completed Form DHA-246.
  • To provide proof of your other citizenship or confirmation that you are applying for another citizenship.
  • To submit the documents to your nearest Home Affairs office or South African Embassy, Mission or Consulate.

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