Moderator, and ID4Africa President, Greg Pote

Fellow panellists and distinguished delegates, 

We are indeed humbled to have been invited, to represent South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs, at this trailblazing meeting of Africa’s champions, the ID4Africa 3rd Annual Meeting. Our Minister, Prof Hlengiwe Mkhize, extends her support and well-wishes. We thank the Government and people of Namibia, and organisers, for the warm hospitalities extended to us.

Last month, we ourselves benefitted when Namibia’s Deputy Minister of Home Affairs and Immigration, Hon. Erastus Amutenya Uutoni, attended the National Conference on South Africa’s White Paper on International Migration. This White Paper will provide the legislative framework for a new immigration management system, one of two pillars of our pathway to digital identity. The other pillar of our envisioned, single, integrated, digital platform is a new national identity system.

Esteemed delegates, I have been asked to share South Africa’s experience on “How digital identity is becoming an enabler in almost every aspect of life in South Africa.”

The advent of democracy in 1994 was a turning-point. We began forging a new, common, national identity to begin to undo divisions and inequalities of the apartheid past. The embodiment of this momentous change was the issuance of one, compulsory identity document to unify citizens, irrespective of race. We used the green-barcoded ID book, which was introduced in 1986. Back then, it excluded Africans in the apartheid-designed homelands.

We inherited a fragmented civil registration system hitherto used to systematically deny citizenship to the black majority, on grounds of race and ethnicity. The shocking reality was that only 4.5 million people, classified as “whites”, had access to acceptable levels of civic services.

So from 1994, we overhauled our systems, relevant legislation and framework. We incorporated the so-called “black” homelands, formerly reserved for Africans, into new nine provinces of a democratic South Africa, and established a single national Department of Home Affairs.

The green-barcoded ID book was issued to all citizens, serving as a prerequisite for various services for all citizens – including voting, getting married, registering birth, drawing social grants, opening bank accounts, seeking employment, and registering for the final school examinations. 

But, we were soon to realise, this green-barcoded ID book had serious limitations. Six among these were that it –

  • Can easily be tempered with,
  • Does not have sufficient security features,
  • Is manual and paper-based, thus open to human manipulation,
  • Is too labour-intensive, entailing many steps in its value chain,
  • Contributed to fraud within the financial sector, and
  • Demanded big storage facilities, which runs counter to the age of technology.

So we went back to the drawing-board. As early as 1995 we were already thinking of a Smart ID Card as an innovative solution. In 2011, we initiated a system-wide Modernization Programme, to create a digital, paperless environment. This flagship Programme of Modernisation entailed significant changes to how the department operated, including system development, processes and change management.

We developed and issued the first Smart ID Card in July 2013. It is highly secured, and has a card chip which is readable and verifiable, with biographic data embedded on it. And thus, it is helping in keeping abreast with technological innovations and trends in the region and the world. 

As a form of identity, the Smart ID Card will replace the green-barcoded ID book. The Smart ID Card is an end-to-end process which is wholly automated and supported by the live capture system. Since its inception in 2013, the Republic has modernized 179 offices across the country. Over 6 million Smart ID Cards were issued.

From this experience we can affirm, digital transformation is opening new pathways towards smarter platforms and new ways of working and new ways of delivering mandatory public services, including those offered online.

We have entered into public private partnerships with four leading commercial banks in South Africa in order to expand our service footprint. We therefore use spaces in banks to service clients. The banks also benefit, as they can verify their clients using the online verification system. Everybody wins. 

The space provided by banks is utilized for the intake of Smart ID Card and passports. For this purpose, they are equipped with the live capture system. Over 3000 bank branches across the country are also benefitting from the online verification initiative.

Currently, we are developing a mobile solution to beef-up the existing live capture solution. We want the Smart ID Card to be a multi-purpose ID to be used by the whole of government, to improve efficiencies while enhancing security. Work is apace to introduce the e-Passport. The department is hard at work also to provide a trusted traveller clearing programme.

We have initiated a project to modernise processes for Births, Marriages, Deaths, Personal Amendments, Permitting, Asylum seeker and Refugee management. Once achieved, this will yield a single view of the client, and improve access and turnaround-times.

Digital identity pathways that we have in place constitute a vital component in our quest to reposition the Home Affairs department to the extent that it discharges, fully, its mandate, consistent with opportunities, as well as threats, of a rapidly-changing globalised, and digital world. The end-product is a new, credible, reliable, and efficient National Identity System through which to deliver mandatory services to citizens, through which to support economic development, and through which to promote safety and security of all persons.

It is envisaged that a content and data-rich environment, will be created, featuring tools such as mobile authentication, biometric analytics assisted tracking, where real-time client sentiment monitoring will be a reality.

Digital identity leads to improvement with regard to service delivery and enhancing accountability. It can easily be protected from damage, tampering and loss with cutting edge authentication and security protocols. It can further be shared in streamlined, tailored and secure ways, predicated on user consent. 

Institutions that use digital identity would know their customers better and thus improve their existing products and offer new products and services to the underserved. Digital transformation will enable the state to promote trusted documents, safer borders and stronger control processes and also create a highly competitive economic environment that will enable growth and attract local and foreign direct investment.

To conclude, we would have made great strides in the quest to improve civil registration and identity systems in the region were we to use technology as an enabler, in turning our authorities into nerve centres of governance. From this will flow countless advantages – enhanced security, faster cheaper services, less crime, empowered citizens and improved investment prospects for states. No country can develop in isolation from its neighbours, region and continent. 

Digital identity will be a key lever for implementing regional integration and growth through the secure and managed flows of people, trade and capital. 



Mkuseli Apleni

Director-General of Home Affairs