South Africa’s ID crisis – Home Affairs accused of illegally blocking over a million IDs

 ·19 Sep 2023

Almost a million South Africans have had their identity document (ID) numbers blocked over fraudulent identity concerns, and Lawyers for Human Rights have said no law allows this.

At the same time, they also believe the criteria behind the blocking of some of these IDs have become increasingly arbitrary.

The issue of fraudulent identity has long been an issue in South Africa. Over a decade ago, in 2012, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) started a campaign to address the issue of misrepresentation on the National Population Register and initially identified 29,000 cases of suspected fraud.

These cases included duplicate ID cases (one person sharing an ID number with multiple people) and multiple ID cases (one person assigned multiple ID numbers).

In 2013, the department issued a notice of its intention to “invalidate” and “cancel” all unverified duplicate IDs – meaning the ID numbers were blocked on the National Population Register.

However, the number of these unverified IDs has grown significantly. Home Affairs estimated that the department had recorded nearly one million of these cases as of the end of 2020 and is suspected to be well over a million in 2023.

Without an ID, an individual is denied essential services and constitutional rights. They cannot vote, apply for a bank account or any form of loan, purchase a vehicle, renew vehicle and driver’s licences or even a cell phone, among other things.

Speaking with Newzroom Afrika, Lawyers for Human Rights’ Thandeka Chauke said that the department believes ID blocking was an “administrative tool” used to maintain the accuracy and integrity of the National Population Register.

She added that although the department has legitimate concerns around fraudulent identity – a major problem in the Home Affairs system – no law allows the department to block an ID number, bringing into question the legality of this action.

“What the Identification Act does allow is for the cancellation, replacement, or seizure of the physical ID book – not the marking or blocking of the ID number,” said Chauke.

She added that there is another issue of due process. “Even if there were a law that gave the DHA the authority to block IDs, they would still have to follow due process – as administrative justice is a constitutional right,” she said.

Chauke noted this issue as evidenced by how people find out their IDs have been blocked. “People are finding out their IDs have been blocked only when they try to access a service that requires an Identification,” she said.

“This signals that there is already something working in the system, as they should have received notice of the intention to block the ID number, reasons as to why it’s getting blocked, and an opportunity to dispute the decision,” she added.

Chauke further highlighted that when a person does follow the proper process to dispute the department’s decision, Home Affairs takes months – even years, in some cases – to process the dispute.

Lawyers for Human Rights have criticised the arbitrary criteria for blocking ID numbers, as the group noted that most of their clients are marginalised, black South Africans, reported IOL.

There is evidence to suggest that the criteria for blocking IDs appeared to be based on subjective and discriminatory facts, such as the shape of inoculation marks, a record of frequent cross-border travel, alleged deportation records, inability to speak a specific local language, bearing a “foreign-sounding” name, or having a parent or spouse of foreign nationality – which Chauke confirmed according to IOL.

In the past five years, Lawyers for Human Rights has assisted more than 500 people in getting their ID numbers unblocked, and the group is currently taking the DHA before the Gauteng high court in Pretoria over the same issue.

In September 2023, the DHA revealed in an affidavit that the Minister of Home Affairs agreed to remove blocks from 1.4 million people’s IDs in May. However, approximately 700,000 IDs remained blocked at the end of July 2023.

BusinessTech reached out to the Department of Home Affairs for comment but it did not respond by time of publication.

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