South Africa

PARLIAMENT

Home Affairs promises less downtime and shorter queues — but questions remain

People wait in long queues at the Orlando West, Soweto, regional Home Affairs office on 15 October 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

State Information Technology seems to be at the heart of a Home Affairs plan to end the interminable, snaking queues at its offices. It’s been a long time coming.

On Tuesday, Home Affairs announced a reinvigorated role for State Information Technology (Sita) and revealed plans to do away with downtimes — system outages, essentially — that trigger the long queues associated with the department that is responsible for citizens’ official documentation from cradle to grave.

It’s something that should have snagged the attention of every lawmaker, given that as recently as three months ago, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi was fairly scathing about Sita. 

Little if anything had been done to modernise unstable IT systems and only the first steps towards an appointment system have been taken, according to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group records of that 31 August 2021 meeting.

On 11 June 2021, in the Home Affairs budget debate in the National Council of Provinces, the minister described the hit-or-miss IT at the department’s frontline offices as “original sin”, and indicated that steps were under way to ditch Sita.

“The original sin is the IT system,” said Motsoaledi at the time. “Why SARS doesn’t have systems down — we have actually analysed it — is because it has been exempted from getting these services through Sita and we are working with (National) Treasury to do that.”

By Tuesday, 30 November, Sita was front and centre in the process of rolling out the IT network, including switching offices from copper cables and Diginet to at least LTE technology, if not fibre, monitoring downtimes and reducing the impact on internet services such as card payments. 

Home Affairs Director-General Tommy Makhode told MPs that Sita had been able to make an initial R3-billion to R4-billion investment, but that more funds would ultimately be required. 

It might be that the Home Affairs Sita toenadering is part of bigger reforms. Both agency Executive Caretaker Luvuyo Keyise and acting Communications Director-General Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani spoke of a government-wide integrated broadband network — or, in official speak, “an all-government plan”.

“We will be going to Cabinet shortly to talk about that and the financial implications, so these things will be done as soon as possible,” said Keyise, who had told MPs “there’s no longer a fight” between the agency and department.

Meanwhile, Jordan-Dyani spoke of SA Connect which had, in a pilot,  connected just below 1,000 sites, with further plans to expand connectivity to townships and rural areas. “We are finalising it,” she said.

MPs welcomed the progress made, but questioned the apparent change of heart about Sita and the troubled start to the migration to a single modernised ID system for citizens, from cradle to grave, across government departments and the private sector.

That’s even though the Home Affairs DG Makhode told MPs “all’s on track” for the first phase of Abis (Automated Biometric Identity System) to be complete by late December 2021. While Abis would ultimately replace Hanis (Home Affairs National Identity System), the two systems would have to run in tandem for about a year.

The move to Abis was not without ructions. The initial R409-million contract with EOH was struck by delays, the Auditor-General flagged it — and Home Affairs took action.

home affairs downtime roodepoort
Queues at the Roodepoort Home Affairs office on 22 December 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

When opposition MPs such as the IFP’s Liezl van der Merwe asked for an update on Tuesday, it emerged that the EOH contract had been completed. However, there was still a dispute over the almost R44-million contract penalty. 

“The EOH arbitration with regards to the penalties is an ongoing process. It will take time,” said Makhode, adding later: “We are working with law enforcement. Cases are registered with the Hawks… We’ll update when we can.”

It’s clear in the department briefing document that EOH has handed everything over.

“The DHA (Department of Home Affairs) entered into an amended and restated master turnkey solutions agreement with IDEMIA in line with all the necessary conditions and scope of the project as per the initial tender requirements on 31 March 2021.

“Handover process between EOH and IDEMIA took place during the month of April 2021. During this period, EOH handed over all Abis documents produced during EOH tenure and updated IDEMIA on the technical work performed,” according to the Home Affairs briefing document to MPs on Tuesday.

IDEMIA describes itself as the “global leader in augmented identity”, with a presence in 180 countries and revenues of €2.2-billion, according to its website. The company offers both enterprise and “government solutions”.

MPs seemed not to have any questions on this aspect of the departmental briefing.

Abis, launched in May 2018, is key to Home Affairs’ position at the centre of government because of its capacity to not only do fingerprints and photos, but also palm prints, facial recognition, iris scans and suchlike.

This is linked to the February 2016 Cabinet decision to move Home Affairs from the governance Cabinet cluster into the security cluster, and reaffirmed in 2017. 

It also links to the June 2017 Home Affairs discussion paper that repositioned the department within the next decade “as a backbone of the security system of the RSA”, but also proposed that Home Affairs must raise its own funds by hiking tariffs for passports and IDs and charging for ID and other verification services like “mandatory” biometric identity checks. This covered, for example, the transfer of property and vehicles, social grant collection, higher education enrolment, public hospital admission and airlines verifying passenger identities.

Read: Whose democracy is it anyway? Home Affairs’ chilling move on your money, and your freedom

If charges for verification of the above services were between R1 and R4, then between R500-million and R2-billion could be collected at current volumes of the few transactions listed above,” according to the 31-page discussion document.

This Home Affairs document followed similar proposals made in the March 2017 ANC discussion paper ahead of its mid-year policy conference.

Read: ANC’s policy document on Home Affairs: When Big Brother met Monopoly Capitalist

That departmental reorientation remains a work in progress, as Tuesday’s Home Affairs briefing document states: “The performance of Abis should (must) be an improvement of the existing performance derived from Hanis and it must support integration of various interface applications for live capture, NPR, IJS (Integrated Justice System), NIIS (National Immigration Identification System), ONLV (DHA On-Line Verification) and CONLV (Commercial On-Line Verification) — the latter supporting the banks.”  

Self-financing is a double-edged sword. The Covid-19 lockdown — Wednesday marks Lockdown Day 615 — has meant that Home Affairs could not issue, and charge, for as many passports, smart and other IDs, and more. 

The usual R1.1-billion self-funding from document-issuing fees just about halved in lockdown, according to Deputy Director-General: Institutional Planning, Thulani Mavuso. And that’s left a gap in the wholly self-funded Home Affairs service at hospitals where newborns can be registered and, in some hospitals, even instantly issued birth certificates. DM

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  • Being a SA Citizen my experience with DHA should be uncomplicated as my needs are simple; unabridged birth certificates, IDCard etc. During 2021 I found that it takes days, not hours, just to get into the door. At 05h00 the queue is already 100’s long. The office opens anywhere between 08h00 and 09h00, or even later if the system is down, and closes at 15h00. If one hasn’t made it to the door you have to try again another day. Fortunately I am not working and do not live far from out DHA office, but for the majority of my fellow queuers this is a challenge. We had ample time to chat. Most were mothers needing to register the birth of a child accompanied by the father and child as well as a support team to help take care of the infant. Then there were students desperately needing an ID card to enable them to write the end of year exams. For them to have to return the next day after taking time off work and traveling long distances is an expense they can ill afford. I hear there are some DHA offices that are efficient. They must be the exception.