Forging a common identity

31 July 2013

Phumla WilliamsPresident Nelson Mandela was one of the volunteers and leaders who defied apartheid laws in 1952 and participated in the largest non-violent resistance ever seen in South Africa, known as the Defiance Campaign. The campaign was in response to a number of unfair and discriminatory laws, such as the pass laws.

In 1956 thousands of women also defied the apartheid government by marching to the Union Buildings in protest against the brutal apartheid pass laws. The pass laws compelled black people to carry identity documents at all times. Failure to produce it on demand by police was punishable by short-term imprisonment or expulsion to a Bantustan.

Similar to a passport, this document restricted black people's' right to access resources and services such as the right to vote and freedom of association. It contained information on the individuals such as fingerprints, photograph, details of employment, whether he or she was allowed to be in a particular area and classified them on tribal and racial lines.

These historic marches against the discriminatory and unjust laws played a significant role in mobilising opposition to apartheid and attracting global attention to the scourge of apartheid.

In 1994 the democratic government began a process to restore the dignity of the majority of South Africans and to build a democracy based on the ideals of fairness, justice and respect for human rights.

It repealed all laws that were discriminatory and unjust. Black people were no longer expected to carry identity documents at all times. Even more importantly, the Department of Home Affairs introduced the green bar-coded identity book (ID book). The green bar-coded ID book was the first step in forging a common identity as it was issued to all South Africans irrespective of their race.

Since then government has made significant progress in ensuring that these human rights are respected with Chapter 9 institutions specifically established to support and strengthen our constitutional democracy.

As part of further consolidating our common national identity the Department of Home Affairs announced it was transforming South Africa’s old ID books to the high-tech smart ID card.

The smart ID card is launched under a banner aimed at inculcating a spirit of patriotism amongst all South Africans as well as pride in our common identity and nationhood.

The smart card will use sophisticated and secure technology systems to manage identity in South Africa and is a precursor to creating a paperless Home Affairs which will eliminate opportunities for fraud and corruption. According to the department, the card has various forms of security features, such as holograms and laser engraving. The ID card also contains personal details which will provide visual verification of the card. ID cards that have been tampered with will also be easy to identify.

Other security features include fingerprint biometrics and biographic data which is embedded on the 80 kilobytes card chip.

The department used the 95th birthday of our founding President and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela on 18 July to roll out the smart ID Ccard for South Africans. It issued new cards to a few well-known citizens of the “Mandela Generation” in honour of their fight for democracy and freedom.

These included former President Nelson Mandela, President Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, former President Thabo Mbeki, former President FW de Klerk, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Mrs Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mrs Sophie de Bruyn, the Rivonia trialists Mr Andrew Mlangeni, Mr Dennis Goldberg, Mr Ahmed Kathrada and former Speaker Frene Ginwala.

Speaking at the smart ID handover ceremony at the Union Building, Minister of Home Affairs Naledi Pandor said: "This smart ID is symbolic with the struggle. We are giving them firstly to those who laid the foundation to our democracy. To Mandela, we are proud of you. You are an inspiration to the world and will continue to live in our hearts and minds."

The introduction of smart ID cards will also help Home Affairs clean up the National Population Register, ensuring that it is secure and reliable. "This will be a major step towards creating a modern, reliable population register," the Minister said.

The full roll-out to the general public will begin in August to first-time applicants and senior citizens. The department has prepared 27 regional offices to issue the new card. Minister Naledi Pandor said that it will take between six and eight years for all South Africans to be issued with smart ID cards.

This means that we will have smart ID cards and the old identity books coexisting alongside each other for several years. On 9 August 2013 South Africa marks the 57th anniversary of the 1956 Women’s Anti-pass March and in honour of the women who led the march to the Union Buildings the four machines that will produce smart ID cards will be named after them.

Minister Pandor said: “…we will commission four machines that will produce the smart ID cards and will name them Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi, Sophie de Bruyn and Rahima Moosa in honour of the brave and selfless women who led the women’s march to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956.”

The smart ID card is a significant breakthrough that will benefit both the general public and business. It will enable the Department of Home Affairs to provide credible, reliable and accurate information, which will enable the state to better plan and implement service delivery.

This initiative is one of the biggest projects undertaken by government since 1994 and all South Africans are called upon to help make it a success.

Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)