JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—Cindy Lund and her fiance had set the wedding date, booked the hall and ordered the flowers by the time they discovered one problem with their impending nuptials: Cindy already was married.
South Africa’s Home Affairs office, which records births, deaths and marriages, had the 26-year-old listed as Mrs. Shahad Jahem. Lund, who never had met, much less married, anyone by that name, could not decide whether to laugh or cry.
“I called Clint and said, ‘I’m married.’ He was just quiet,” she remembers of her fiance, Clint DeLange. “He said, ‘We’ll sort it out.’ “
Lund is not alone. In the past month, nearly 800 single South African women have discovered they have been wed, without their knowledge, to Nigerian, Pakistani, Chinese and other foreign suitors looking for a quick route to a South African residency permit and work visa. Over the past three years, Home Affairs officials acknowledge, 3,387 brides—and a few grooms—have taken the plunge without ever being invited to their own nuptials.
Under the scam, now being dismantled with a series of arrests, foreigners eager to live in South Africa paid about $750 each to South African marriage officers or Home Affairs clerks to file false marriage papers, police said. Often a victim’s stolen identification card was used to certify the wedding; in other cases corrupt Home Affairs clerks simply picked identification numbers of unmarried women at random.
So far at least 14 people have been arrested in the scandal, including two Home Affairs clerks, a handful of “husbands,” a few suspected middlemen and a Pretoria, South Africa, priest who allegedly conducted at least 600 fake marriages in his home over the past two years.
“It looks like his business was booming,” South African Police Service spokeswoman Mary Martins-Engelbrecht said of the priest, who has been charged with fraud. She said more arrests were imminent.
Most scam victims discovered their unwelcome new marital status while replacing a lost identification card—which then came back bearing a different surname—or trying to register their own real marriages. A few puzzled victims had divorce papers, filed by their “husbands,” delivered to their door.
More recently, South Africans have been able to look up their status online. To assist in straightening out the nationwide mess, Home Affairs has set up a link on its Web site urging everyone to “Click Here to Verify Your Marital Status.”
Besides the legions of weddings of inconvenience, the site also has turned up a few cases of false marital strife, including the Johannesburg attorney who learned she had been living in sin with her doctor-of-theology husband after the two somehow had been falsely divorced.
Many of the unwittingly wed initially were advised to seek divorces to get their names back. Faced with outraged protest, Home Affairs since has agreed simply to expunge marriages proved fraudulent.
A few of the more creative victims, however, have settled on revenge as a more satisfying option.
On learning recently that she was wed to a Pakistani she had never met, an angry Dorothy Letlape, a Pretoria maid, sued him not only for divorce but for half his assets and for support payments. She also showed up on the stunned man’s doorstep, demanding to live with her “husband.”
South Africa is trying to clamp down on the problem. Foreign spouses of South Africans now must wait five years for work and permanent residency permits, rather than receiving them immediately. Those who fraudulently got permits will see them revoked, Home Affairs promises. And South African marriages soon may include another ritual besides cake-cutting and kisses—the fingerprinting of bride, groom and marriage officer.
Lund, initially faced with the unpleasant choice of canceling her planned Oct. 2 wedding or committing bigamy, got the good news this week that she officially is no longer Mrs. Jahem.
“I have no idea how they picked me,” she said of those behind the fraud. But “I’m happy I’ve got my name back—at least for two weeks.”