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

profile picture Tshepo Magoma 5 min read
A scenic image of a green field in South Africa. There is a house in the distance and some lush trees in the foreground. The sky is blue with a few white clouds in places.

This is the second 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.


My research on digital identity and fraud in South Africa has, so far, been incredibly interesting, with most people keen to share their opinions. Encouragingly, many were also eager to share their insights on a variety of issues around the subject of digital identity in particular.

My research kicked off in Gauteng, focusing on metropolitan areas such as Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, and Pretoria. My first intention is to understand the challenges that people face in urban areas since most of the population, including expats, are concentrated in these areas.

The introduction of the national Smart ID card remains one of the government’s first digital initiatives. But since its introduction a few years ago, has it really helped? My research is already highlighting a lot of debate, with people questioning the security of the cards and, in turn, the safety of their identity. Some interviewees believed that an ID card was linked to their bank accounts, and that the moment they lost it they needed to contact the bank immediately or risk losing their savings. Others believed they were totally secure because of the photo embedded on the front. These were just a few of many different viewpoints I’ve been hearing and that my research aims to explore over the next few months.


Social inequalities cloud benefits of (digital) identity

Given South Africa has a high rate of unemployment, it is not surprising that the majority of people affected by identity risks and challenges are concentrated in townships and rural areas. I’ve unearthed several cases of fraud driven by perpetrators scamming people. Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to study some of these issues during a visit to informal settlements in Pretoria West, outside a popular suburb.

One person I spoke to told me that we could not look at digital identities without looking at other social inequalities and other forms of social imbalance in the country. In countries such as South Africa – a country with historic issues of social equality – the benefits of digital identity are often overlooked or ignored. Some young people told me that even after losing their ID they felt no need to rush to get a replacement since they hardly needed to use it. Worryingly, there was a significant lack of awareness around what a perpetrator might be able to do with their lost ID card. As a result, my research often starts off as an awareness-raising exercise, helping make people aware of the importance of keeping their identity safe and protected to avoid any type of fraudulent activity.


Forged IDs and lost documents

In South Africa, the most commonly-used form of identity is often a drivers license, primarily because drivers are required by law to carry it. This, of course, presents a problem for young people who don’t own a car or drive, and whose primary need for an ID is to apply for jobs and educational-related services. As social services provided by the government become more and more overstretched, requiring an ID of some kind to access them can also be problematic.

As a result, we have people trying to forge identity documents and residency so they can present themselves as legal citizens in order to receive essential government services. And we have people carrying out identity theft in order to obtain certain benefits, or to commit fraudulent activities due to the high rate of unemployment in the country.

While others may have lost their ID and decided not to replace it, many people still do not have an ID despite considerable government investment in the Smart ID card scheme. This is especially true in segregated areas such as rural areas and townships. Thankfully, the government have improved its systems to allow a faster turnaround in issuing Smart ID cards from six months to within a week. The government uses this as proof to its critics that it is committed to providing digital identities to all citizens.


Digital fraud

Many issues raised by interviewees in urban areas centred around digital fraud, something which is becoming a growing concern given more and more young people are getting online, and social media has become the primary form of communication. People are now meeting and networking more and more online with large amounts of data being shared without safeguards in place.

More transactions also take place online, something considered to be the safest way of paying when compared to carrying cash – but is it safe? My research has so far highlighted considerable amounts of fraud taking place online, but young people also get into trouble when they meet strangers online whom, over the course of time, think they have developed a form of trust without any verification of the true identity of that person.

South Africa, in general, is ready for the digital revolution. We see our government trying to minimize certain physical contact services and move them online, and the private sector has been pushing hard to shift much of their service offerings online. But one main issue remains – the lack of investment in the regulation and verification of the systems we are trying to implement. I hope that my research will help highlight some of these challenges, and that I will be able to help mitigate some of these risks.

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.