If only I’d known

About 18 months ago I received an email from an Israeli relative. Ron was cleaning up old correspondence and wondered if I had the following information? I scrolled down to the grainy image below his signature, recalling the emotional rollercoaster of trying to find my grandparents’ marriage certificate. Now it had fallen off the back of a truck.

Ron had received this information from another member of the Israeli network, Paul, who is also a professional genealogist. I contacted him for a link to a higher-resolution image. I learned that it had been on Family Search all through the time another researcher was plugging away at Home Affairs and I was separately pursuing leads from inside and outside South Africa. If only I’d known.

This turn of events gave fresh impetus to thoughts of resolving the circumstances of my aunt Julia’s birth. Invariably this would involve some form of interaction with the Department of Home Affairs. In June 2018 I approached a new researcher, Mel[i],  to take on my case. She advised that third parties could no longer make representations to  Home Affairs on behalf of applicants, which went some way to explaining why the other researcher had run up against a brick wall. My best bet now, she said, was to apply for an unabridged birth certificate through the South African diplomatic mission in Australia. She recommended carrying out a deceased estate search first; this produced Julia’s identity number, key information I would need to complete Home Affairs’ paperwork.

Last July I lodged an application for an unabridged birth certificate with the South African High Commission in Canberra. Curiously, this is the sole option to which the Commission’s website directs applicants, to the point where an ‘X’ is marked in the relevant box on the form. I was advised to wait three months before inquiring about progress. The combined cost of the application fee, money order – the Commission does not accept credit cards, cash or personal cheques – postage, express paid envelopes, and Mel’s fee for the estate search, was around A$45; a modest outlay considering what I’d already spent in cash and equivalent person hours.

At the end of October, I rang for an update.
‘It can take up to a year!’ a female voice shrilled down the line.
‘Have you received the paperwork?’ I asked, swallowing a comment about the Commission’s advised time frames and that no receipt had been issued for the application.
‘I don’t know, I’ll have to check.’
I started mentally going through what I’d have to do in putting together a fresh application. Thank goodness I’d kept copies.
‘Yes, I have it. But because you put your aunt’s married name on the form, it had to be changed.’
So they’d received the forms. Fantastic.
‘What is your married name?’
‘Excuse me? Saltman.’
‘No, what is your married name?’
Oh god, what am I supposed to say?
‘Saltman. Look, I’m making application for my late aunt’s birth certificate. I’m not applying for one for me.’
There goes my $45, I thought. Well, I had to try.

A month later there was an email from the Commission. It verged on the abrupt, and was lacking in even the most basic form of accepted formal address. But none of that mattered in the face of what, to me, was a minor miracle. A certificate from Home Affairs had arrived in Canberra. A few days later it was in my letter box. It had taken four months to reach this point.

The A5 page with the Home Affairs logo was distinctive for how little information it provided, and most of it was already known to me. Was this as good as I was going to get? I shared my disappointment with Mel, enclosing a scan of what I’d been sent plus one of my father’s handwritten birth certificate which is far more forthcoming. I asked her how I would go about getting one like his.
‘You actually need a vault copy of the birth certificate – computerised ones are riddled with errors. Unfortunately, I don’t know off hand what the reference for the document is, but I think it’s just a tick in the right box on the same (form) as an ordinary one. Good luck.’
I flicked through the email chain to see if I’d misread Mel’s initial instructions. I hadn’t. It would take more than good luck to get rid of the misery I was feeling.

I steeled myself and dialled the Commission. Would it be possible to apply for a vault copy of Julia’s birth certificate?
‘Oh, yes,’ the officer said, ‘you can do that.’
I was speechless. Wasn’t this the same organisation that shoehorned overseas residents into applying for unabridged birth certificates?
‘Will the application fee be the same?’
‘Yes.’
I filed the new paperwork last November. I was not optimistic that a vault copy would materialise within a few months, or even at all. I did not follow up at the three-month mark. In fact, I tried to forget about the whole affair.

Last week I received an email from the Commission: a birth certificate had arrived. Due to the Easter and Anzac Day holiday break it didn’t land in my mail box until yesterday. As I tore open the envelope, the thoughts running through my mind were that Home Affairs had sent another copy of the unabridged certificate or a dud alternative. Then I saw Harry’s signature on the form.

[i]               Not her real name