Updates from the field – Tshepo’s diary entry April 2020

profile picture Tshepo Magoma 6 min read
an image of two people's hands, each holding a small flag of South Africa

This is the third 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. To follow his whole research project, you can find an archive of his monthly field diary entries here.


Over the past couple of months, I’ve had the opportunity to collect data from several people in Limpopo province, mostly in the Mopani region, including schools, public departments, NGOs and community members. The participants have all had one thing in common – access to state and private services is predominantly limited to ones’ ability to acquire and disclose an ID to relevant parties.


The role of ID in education

I visited rural schools in the Sekgosese area, under the Mopani region in Limpopo. My main objective was to understand what ID fraud means to the learners and to gauge their views and personal experiences. I was particularly interested in issues ranging from digital fraud and the prospects of having a digital ID, and other human rights violations that comes with a lack or loss of an ID. Interestingly, in public schools, learners are encouraged to get their IDs before they reach Grade 11, as it has become mandatory for learners to sit for their exams with an ID document. Most principals in the schools have also noted that the national green ID book poses several challenges for the schools, as some learners tamper with the ID image to commit fraud during exam season. For example, it is not uncommon for one student to sit an exam on behalf of another learner who may be struggling with the subject – for a fee.

The government has been pushing for post-2013 high school learners to have a Smart ID card only, and my research has found that most school learners possess one, much to the relief of the schools. To combat fraud these Smart ID cards need to be presented prior to sitting an exam. Yet, despite efforts to have learners present their IDs before exams commence, attempts to access exam papers ahead of exam sittings remain a problem, showing that fraud is a very dynamic issue that requires a holistic approach.

The data also shows an increase in reports of loss of IDs during exam seasons, and this raises questions as to whether schools use other forms of identification, instead of an official ID. ID replacement is usually expensive for learners, especially those living in poverty in rural areas, so many have been debating the potential of a digital Smart ID card scanned to their smartphone to prove to their schools during an exam. Interestingly, others saw this as an obstacle due to schools reluctance on learners using smartphones on school premises. That said, I also engaged with the local home affairs office who have noticed an increase in the number of people within communities who now want to shift to a Smart ID card – especially young adults. Deployments have already been carried out in several schools, rural centres and community halls to facilitate and make the process easier.


Accessing social help

Unlike many urban areas, rural areas (even in the post-apartheid era) still face quite different issues, predominately for elderly people. Many older people tend to be unsure of their date of birth, with one older participant telling me that all her life she rarely celebrates her birthday because she isn’t sure when it is. An accurate, confirmed date of birth is a key component of any digital identity.

I have also noticed that many rural communities predominantly rely on social grants given the socio-geographic challenges they face, and the lack of employment opportunities. In other cases, from a human rights perspective, some elders are denied the right to social grants due to an incorrect birth date previously recorded on their ID. Reasons for this can be down to everything from challenges of literacy, to simple errors from the old home affairs departments. While my research indicates that identity challenges (such as fraud) are less likely in rural areas, identity challenges have existed in another form – for example, where a wrong identity is given to an individual who then ends up bearing the consequences for the rest of their lives.

The ways NGOs deliver services to communities is also changing as ID increasingly becomes a requirement before receiving aid. This, of course, can end up excluding those with no form of identification, mostly foreign nationals, refugees, displaced people or simply those who have lost their IDs. Presenting ID to local clinics before treatment is now mandatory. Subsidised government services such as provision of electricity, food and other basic needs also require people to be able to prove who they are. These are just a few of the issues that drive people to commit fraud by faking their identities.


Missed opportunities

I also discovered that some children have been given false identities intentionally by their parents in order for them to receive specific social grants and benefits reserved by the state for more disadvantaged groups. Having a basic ID also makes it possible to obtain a driving licence and, coupled with completion of a matric certificate, gives the holder a better chance of gaining from some of the primary employment opportunities. A number of young people I spoke to have missed out on several opportunities because they lost some of these documents.


Green ID book vs Smart ID card

I have also learnt that, despite the introduction of the Smart ID card and the push for everyone to upgrade to one, South Africa has yet to scrap the older green ID book completely. As a result it is possible to use both IDs interchangeably.  In many rural areas, most older people prefer using their green ID book whereas younger people are more comfortable using their Smart ID card. Increasing numbers of young people will only ever know the digital version of their identity given their age.


Identity theft

Despite efforts to switch to a Smart ID card, identity theft is a growing problem in South Africa. Cases are reported every week of criminals selling fake state IDs, licences, passports and other forms of identification. Furthermore, the number of people who simply ignore the fact that they have lost an ID and never report it to the relevant authorities simply adds to the problem. The lack of urgency in reporting ID theft is probably not helped by the lack of easily available information on the dangers, and impact, of having your identity stolen. Education is a key part of the equation here, an area where considerably more time, effort and resources are required if we are to begin to combat ID fraud in South Africa.


If you have a question for Tshepo or are interested in his research, you can reach him here.