While the Department of Home Affairs compiles the National Population Register, rooting out duplicate or fraudulent ID documents, concerns have arisen that measures to “block” these may leave hundreds of thousands of innocent South Africans stateless. KHADIJA PATEL spoke to Lawyers for Human Rights about the implications.
Lampposts across the country are being readied for their periodic transformation into sacrificial flag bearers for the country’s politics. Ahead of next year’s general election, streets are already festooned with ANC posters encouraging young people to apply for their identity documents.
“Get your ID now and register to vote in 2014,” the placards urge, no doubt appealing to that curious South African species, the “Born Frees” and hoping to galvanise them ahead of voting season. And while the Born Frees’ enthusiasm for politics remains to be tested, efforts to encourage South Africans to apply for their IDs and register to vote will only grow more urgent as next year’s election draws closer.
There is, however, another effort aimed at collating a register of South Africans that has exposed the consequences of being stripped of a South African identity number. The possession of an identity document is not only a pre-requisite for voting, but also essential in order to accesses basic services, apply for a passport and receive an education, to name just a few of life’s routine rituals.
The Department of Home Affairs is in the process of compiling the National Population Register with the aim of “creating a secure South African citizenship database and secure South African identity”. Or so claimed Home Affairs minister Naledi Pandor during her department’s budget vote in May.
Home Affairs subsequently launched a campaign to eliminate duplicate and fraudulently obtained identity numbers. So far, around 500,000 potential duplicate or multiple ID cases have been identified and “blocked”.
A blocked ID results in an individual being stripped of his or her nationality and denied access to basic rights while their status is being investigated. This investigation can take up to two years, and in the meantime those who have been affected live in a stateless limbo.
Addressing the National Press Club last December, minister Pandor said the decision to block IDs was also aimed at flushing out people with problematic numbers. Individuals with blocked numbers, she said, would no doubt swiftly contact Home Affairs to set the record straight.
“We took this extraordinary step because if you have a duplicate ID you won’t be able to hold a bank account, access social grants, housing and other government services or enrol for further education and training,” minister Pandor said.
But Lawyers for Human Rights claim the decision is the effect of a rushed registration policy and that an urgent response is required to avoid a crisis that might leave hundreds of thousands of innocent South Africans stateless. “A stateless person is someone who is not recognised by any state as a citizen,” says Liesl Muller, an attorney with the Statelessness Project at Lawyers for Human Rights. Muller says Home Affairs does not appear to understand the severity of the matter. “They don’t realise it because they are focussed on tackling this fraud and they are right, we do need to,” she says.
An excuse Home Affairs offered, said Muller, was that it was unable to locate people whose ID’s had been blocked. But Muller added that she did not know of a single person who had been contacted by the department even when the correct address was on record. The minister has admitted that while the department commissioned TransUnion to track down the holders of duplicate IDs, “few of those on the list have come forward to have their ID conflicts resolved”.
Muller says Home Affairs has advertised lists of the names of people in possession of duplicate ID numbers in English newspapers, while also dedicating space on its website to assist South Africans in determining whether their ID number is problematic. She adds, however, that these measures still exclude many people. “None of my clients received a notice from Home Affairs,” she says.
Muller says her organisation has received a rising number of complaints from South Africans who only discover that their ID numbers have been blocked while attempting to access other services at Home Affairs. “What happened to most of them is they went to renew a passport and were then informed, ‘Oh no, you can’t renew your passport, your ID is blocked. The system says illegal immigrant’,” Muller explains.
“We’ve had other clients who’ve found out their IDs are blocked while travelling. The Home Affairs officials would say, ‘No, you travel to Mozambique too often, I’m going to block your ID’,” Muller adds.
Home Affairs contends that these duplicate ID numbers have serious security implications and impact negatively on the integrity of the National Population Register. Once a person with a blocked ID number approaches Home Affairs, an investigation is conducted by the inspectorate at Home Affairs’ immigration department. A decision on how to proceed is then passed on to the minister’s office. The process is understandably arduous and time-consuming but on the other side of the Home Affairs cubicles, those with blocked IDs live lives in limbo.
“We’ve had a person who wrote matric and he didn’t know his ID was blocked. When he went to enquire about his matric results, they said they had no record of him. And it’s now five years later, he still hasn’t got his results and he couldn’t go to university,” says Muller.
Muller says Home Affairs is not consulting affected individuals before making this very serious administrative decision. “The problem is, if you block an ID you haven’t given them any other option. If they wanted to block the ID, then they should give you some other permit in terms of the immigration act, saying you’re being investigated but you are allowed to be in the country,” Muller suggests.
Some 400,000 ID numbers were originally indentified by Home Affairs, and, despite the department’s claims that the number has decreased substantially. Muller disagrees and says it is increasing.
The problem with duplicate ID numbers, however, can be traced back to years of incompetence and mismanagement that have plagued the Department of Home Affairs. “There was a lot of maladministration from officials who could issue ID numbers, and there was also a lot of corruption,” Muller says. “So a lot of people ended up with a duplicate ID because you would pay someone to get an ID and an official would give you and ID number which is maybe already in use.”
Until recently any Home Affairs local office could issue a person an ID number.
“I suspect that the majority of these people who have been blocked aren’t guilty of any fraud. It’s just this huge admin problem,” she says.
However, time is fast running out for those South Africans with blocked IDs to resolve the problem with Home Affairs. “If you don’t do that before 31 December then they will just cancel those ID numbers which means you’ll have to prove your nationality from scratch after December,” she says.
The burden of proving citizenship rests with those affected. And for some it may prove an insurmountable obstacle, rendering them stateless for life.
Muller believes Home Affairs should rejig their current procedure around these problematic IDs by first concluding their investigation and then blocking an ID but also giving those involved sufficient notice. But she is not convinced that the Department of Home Affairs will change course. “They are not going to change their mind about this,” she says. DM