Digital ID, smart ID and identity in South Africa

profile picture Tshepo Magoma 6 min read
an image of some box-shaped buildings in South Africa.

This is the first field diary entry from Tshepo, one of our Yoti Digital Identity Fellows. His year-long research project is looking at the digital identity landscape in South Africa, with a specific focus on the national smart ID identity programme from a human rights perspective.


South African SmartID Cards play a crucial role in identifying and eliminating digital identity fraud in South Africa. Future developments here will likely have repercussions for the entire African continent, given that South Africa is the most developed country in the region.

My Fellowship will examine South Africa’s national digital identity programme from a human rights perspective, and will propose safeguards and policy recommendations for those involved: public officials, lawmakers, representatives from judicial and human rights institutions, technologists, officers of development institutions, and members of the private sector.


National Digital ID programs

Countries all over the world are increasingly focusing on issues related to digital identity, and these are now at the center of many policy discussions. As a consequence, increasing numbers of governments have either proposed or are implementing programs relating to digital identity on a national level. These programs are directly administered by the government or implemented through government support and aim to provide a single identity to all residents, which in some cases is limited to national citizens and excludes expatriates. 

Biometrics are often the focal point of these national ID programs, as establishing the identity of a person involves gathering, storing and processing biometric data.


Advocates vs critics

Advocates of these programs say that national-level initiatives such as these provide several benefits. They allow the national government to provide services seamlessly and efficiently to its citizens and residents. They also believe that national ID programs are crucial for state welfare, poverty alleviation drives, fraud elimination and higher inclusivity. These programs are also the foundation of national security efforts.

Critics, however, believe differently. They argue that these programs do not guarantee more benefits, better government services, or enhanced administration for the public. Instead they create serious issues because of the way they are planned and implemented. There are grave concerns, in particular, in areas relating to cybersecurity, data protection and privacy. There is also the risk of social exclusion, something my colleagues on the Yoti Fellowship Programme are researching.


Multiple forms of ID

To make it possible for these national ID drives to achieve their goals, several critical issues must be addressed. Governments must design a framework that takes technical, legal, and social factors into account. This framework should accommodate anonymity, informed consent and choice for its users. Centralised national ID schemes also focus on providing just one form of ID for each person and do not allow for multiple ID forms that could be better in many respects.

Multiple ID forms can increase competition and lead to the provision of better services for users. Multiple IDs also have the potential to empower the cardholders by giving them a choice of which identity method they use in differing circumstances.

My Fellowship will focus on schemes that allow only one ID card per person, and will investigate the effects and consequences of this approach for its users.


Digital Identity in South Africa

The population of the Republic of South Africa is around 51 million people. South Africa shares its borders with six other countries, and it has an extremely ethnically diverse population. A green ID book is mandated for citizens as well as permanent residents over the age of 16. This bar-coded ID serves as proof of user identity for several important situations such as opening a bank account, applying for a driver’s license, a passport application, voting registration, and more.

Unfortunately, the green ID book has proved to be highly vulnerable to theft and fraud, creating security problems which affect both the people and the government. The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) launched the SmartID card system in part to address these concerns, and in part as an investment drive to update and modernize technology in the country. 

On 18th July 2013, the DHA commenced the replacement of green ID books with these new SmartID Cards. Since the new cards have a host of advanced security features they are resistant to tampering and forging. Despite these features, the cards are not foolproof, and several fraudulent marriages and other digital identity scams have been exposed by local media. 

The government of South Africa claim that the new cards are durable and secure thanks to the choice of high-quality polycarbonate material. Other physical features including laser engraving, holograms and personal information are also designed to make fraud more difficult. It is expected that these cards will dramatically reduce the incidence of identity theft and fraud in South Africa.


Research questions

My research will seek answers to the following questions to help determine the performance of these cards in relation to ID fraud prevention:

  • Have ID-related frauds declined in South Africa, following the introduction of the new SmartID cards?
  • What new technological developments might be available to further boost the security of these cards?
  • How can these cards be used to improve government services to the public?


Fellowship goals

The following are the goals for my fellowship:

  • Assessing the effects of national identity programs on human rights.
  • Suggesting policy recommendations and safeguards to key stakeholders like cardholders, government officials, lawmakers, judicial bodies and human rights organizations.
  • Identifying and analyzing fraud cases.
  • Examining trends concerning the old green books and new SmartID cards to evaluate the consequences of the ID program.


Next steps

The research carried out during my Fellowship is the first of its kind, and is aimed at determining whether the promise of SmartID cards has been met.

If you have a question for Tshepo or are interested in his research, you can reach him here. To follow his whole research project, you can find an archive of his monthly field diary entries here.