A new national identity card for the Republic of South Africa

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When documents were symbols of Apartheid

RSA, with a population of over 53 million is a multi-ethnic democratic nation.

During the apartheid, compulsory green identity books, were issued to all black citizens over 16. They were utilized for contracts or almost all interactions with the administration. They also contained driving licenses and fire arm permits. Non-white citizens were required to always carry the "dompas" (dumb pass) allowing them to live and work in specified parts of the country. Not having the book would result in arrest and expulsion to reserves. Designed to segregate the population, it became one of the most hated symbols of apartheid. In 1994, the new democracy willing to restore dignity for black citizens decided to issue the green book to all citizens.

The green bar-coded identity book is used as proof of identification for many uses such as applying for a driver's license or passport, voter ID authentication and opening a bank account. However, fraud and theft has made the paper book increasingly insecure for individuals and the authorities. As part of a major national investment in technology modernization, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) decided to put in place a smart ID card system.​

Enhanced identity theft protection with the new national ID card

Following research into national eID programs implemented by governments across the world, the DHA opted for an eID card - for its high level of security and advanced data-protection mechanisms. Two means of authentication are implemented – biometric fingerprint verification and a pin code known only to the user. An embedded secure software with its microprocessor securely contains identification details and ensures that only authorized authorities can read and verify the card's data using contactless readers. The inclusion of this biometric identification makes it virtually impossible to duplicate the national identity card. This ensures, for the first time, that citizens can be securely authenticated to their citizen eID card.

Features of the RSA national identity card

  • Embedded microprocessor to securely store citizen's personal data, including digital photograph and fingerprints
  • Encryption keys to enable identification and verification of card holder via contactless technology based on international standards
  • Visual security printing features to protect against forgery
  • Highly durable polycarbonate ID card body​

Global and local expertise for a phased rollout

Following a pilot in 2012, the new eID card program was launched on 18 July 2013, with a phased rollout over five to seven years. Early 2016 more than 2m identity cards have been issued by the Government Printing Works (GPW), through enrolment in some 27 regional offices across the country. Over the next years, more offices will be equipped to perform live-data capture as rollout ramps up nationally.

Gemalto was chosen to provide the new national ID cards, based on its secure embedded software technology, contactless expertise and ability to deliver durable polycarbonate eID documents within an ambitious schedule, as well as a long-established presence in Johannesburg.

GPW uses Gemalto's secure embedded software to protect the holder's image and biometric data within the secure identity card, delivering outstanding levels of integrity and privacy. The high-end national identity card, equipped with contactless capability, is today bringing added levels of convenience and security for citizens. The highly durable polycarbonate eID card is specifically designed to counter forgery.

The "Match on Card" feature allows fingerprints to be checked locally using the microprocessor of the eID card. It ensures the citizen's information never leaves the ID card and does not require any connection to a central database.

May 2016: Citizens can apply for their national ID cards at local banks

South Africans can apply for their smart ID cards at local banks following the launch of the eChannel programme by President Jacob Zuma in April 2016. Absa, First National Bank, Nedbank and Standard Bank are the first partners.

The smart ID online application process is currently limited to people aged between 30 and 35 years old but the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) will extend it in the near future.

As the ABSA blog makes it clear, the process brings convenience and speed: "Remember how it used to take hours of queuing and around 54 days to get your green barcoded ID book? Those days are gone, as it will now take you less than 30 minutes in an Absa branch. Within 12 days, you can collect your Smart ID card."​

Improving future government services to citizens

This new smart-card based ID infrastructure offers the opportunity to facilitate additional e-government services as part of RSA's modernization ambition. The national eID card supports public key infrastructure (PKI). Its PIN code and match-on-card authentication techniques enable easy verification of identification. They create a future-proof platform capable of providing a broad range of secure online services such as online and in-person authentication as well as legally binding digital signatures. Government departments of transport, health and social development are also looking at how to exploit the National ID card functionality.

With this ambitious national identity program, RSA joins the growing number of countries who have turned to eID programs for more reliable identification and authentication methods for better citizen security and convenience.

Securing government services

  • Reduce identity fraud and theft
  • One single national ID card for all citizens
  • Future platform for a suite of eGovernment services including online authentication and digital signatures

Benefits for citizens

  • ​Eliminates the need to carry multiple ID documents
  • Improves confidence in official identity credentials
  • Speeds identity checks at border crossing
  • Establishes citizenship in the National Population Register for voting and other civic interactions​
  • The eID system forms part of a number of initiatives aimed at improving the security and delivery of government services to RSA citizens.

Priorities include:

  • ​Enhancing security through the creation of a reliable National Population Register
  • Ensuring that all 16 year olds apply for and receive the new national identity card.
  • Supporting national security by establishing secure, efficient and reliable ports of entry through e-visa issuing, Trusted Traveller Program and Enhanced Electronic Movement Control System.

More on Gemalto Identity Solutions​​​

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 Video

Former president Nelson Mandela has become one of the first recipients of the new smart identity document card in honor of his 95th birthday.