Evolving partnerships drive South Africa’s digital identity program

May 15, 2017 - 

South Africa took a major step toward the use of digital identity to secure the delivery of a variety of government services in 2013, with the introduction of a national smart ID card embedded with fingerprint data.

Today the system is progressing toward being used for driver’s licenses, voter registration, and all other social services, Director General of the Department of Home Affairs for South Africa, Mkuseli Apleni, told an audience at ID4Africa 2017 last month. However, it faces an enrollment backlog of millions of people, along with roughly a million new applicants each year.

Director General Apleni spoke about the challenges and opportunities facing South Africa’s identity system in an exclusive interview with Biometric Update at ID4Africa 2017. Having moved beyond a prior unsuccessful attempt with a completely privatized process, Apleni says the role of the Department of Home Affairs is to manage suppliers. “My mandate in Home Affairs is to manage civic affairs and immigration. But for me to do that, I need systems.” The way to make sure those systems perform the function they are needed for, while avoiding vendor lock-in, is to acquire solutions rather than equipment, he says.

Now that that process is well under way, and as early benchmarks are achieved, Apleni sees a role for other biometrics like iris and voice recognition, and an evolution within the system toward multi-factor biometrics. “These things will help us to tighten up.” He also sees a need for governments to strike a balance between keeping costs low and providing incentive for vendors to continue the research and development that ultimately provides new and improved processes.

South Africa’s Home Affairs National Identification System (HANIS) program also includes a public-private partnership with four banks to extend South African citizens’ digital identities to secure personal financial services such as social grants. This model is helping the country extend the uses of digital identity as broadly as possible, leveraging the database administered centrally by the Department of Home Affairs.

South Africa is currently upgrading its AFIS system to provide law enforcement with fuller prints, and Apleni sees that data improvement as part of a widely beneficial capacity-building process driven by security concerns.

“The Home Affairs Department is at the center of the security architecture of any country, because we keep the database of identities for the country,” Apleni says. “We are moving in the right direction with biometrics, and as we improve these systems to include iris, voice recognition, and as we reach the next level, where at a point of entry you can just say ‘open the gate,’ we can save money for the state and improve the economy by reducing corruption and fraud in the country.”

South Africa is considering ways to improve its birth registration system and increase enrolment in HANIS. Like most African countries, it is also still completing its transition away from legacy paper systems, and Apleni says resistance to that change is natural, but must be overcome.

“Technology is the solution,” he says. “A paper-based process will give you problems forever. You cannot have an efficient system, which is not prone to fraud and corruption, so you cannot properly give access to your citizens.”

“When you are at the point of buying the systems, you always think it’s too expensive, but it’s very cheap as compared to manual processes,” Apleni explains. “Yes it will be expensive when you implement it, but the benefits to your country are far beyond.”

For Apleni, ID4Africa 2017 reinforced the need for dialogue within the digital identity movement. “Sharing is a key. You may be in your country struggling with a certain issue, and spend all your energy on this one thing, and you can just take it from another country here.”

With continued partnership and support from diverse groups of stakeholders, South Africa may be able to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 16:9 to provide legal identity and birth registration for all by 2030 ahead of schedule, and share the stories of its continued success to help other African countries do the same.

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About Chris Burt

Chris Burt is a writer and contributor to Biometric Update. He has also written nonfiction about information technology, dramatic arts, sports culture, and fantasy basketball, as well as fiction about a doomed astronaut. He lives in Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter @AFakeChrisBurt."