Missing documents at the Department of Home Affairs

  • Posted on December 18, 2014

The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) – at least the Cape Town Regional Home Affairs office (at 56 Barrack Street in central Cape Town) – is far from homely. It is overcrowded, with little space to queue inside the building in designated areas and very little space to complete applications. The toilets are a heath hazard, that is, if a functioning one, open for public use, can be located. These conditions prevail despite the building being renovated and refurbished in 2008 and reopened to the public in 2011. Although the bulk of its staff do an outstanding job dealing with the often irate public, its filing system is dysfunctional. In some instances, tales of missing paperwork and misplaced official documents abound. Infrastructural inadequacies aside, misplaced original application forms, missing records and lost certificates and documents is a grave concern for the public, South African citizens, visitors and foreign nationals seeking to make South Africa their home and permanent place of residence. 

The DHA is South Africa’s bureaucratic centre. It is here that births and deaths are registered; marriages are certified; residence and study permits are approved or declined, and passports and Identity Documents are issued. The Department of Home Affairs holds birth, marriage and death certificates and records relating to immigration, naturalisation and name changes. Civil registration of births was only introduced in parts of South Africa in the late 1800s and was not compulsory until 1905. Marriage records were first registered in the Cape in 1700 and in other areas in the mid-19th century and afterwards. Records of births and marriages up to about 1950 are held in the National Archives in Pretoria and in various provincial archive repositories. Death notices, deceased estate files and other records may also be found in the National Archives and provincial repositories, but the cut-off date for these varies. No central database of these records is available to the public. To find out how to apply for a copy of these records see the Department of Home Affairs website: http://www.home-affairs.gov.za. Its primary business of issuing paperwork that ensures the legality of residency in South Africa from ‘the cradle to the grave’ is enduring, and yet its filing system is flawed and some documents are missing.

South African citizens, immigrants and emigrants all rely on the Department of Home Affairs and its paperwork for a number of things. Without the correct paperwork people cannot open bank accounts, work, and purchase or rent accommodation and ultimately are at risk of being declared illegal in their homes. Most people that have been to Home Affairs have found it to be an unpleasant and time-consuming experience. There are a few positive encounters but these seem to be exceptions. Upon arrival at Home Affairs visitors join the queue which usually, at least on my visits, snakes outside the building. The sub-contracted security officials act as ushers, welcoming visitors whilst ensuring that no one jumps the queue. Two Home Affairs officials at a small desk issue each visitor with a numbered card and explain which counter to queue at. All new applications are dealt with on the ground floor which does, since the 2008 refurbishment, run more smoothly. The automated computerised queue management system helps the Department to monitor how many people are served on a daily basis and has made queuing more civil. Counters on the first floor are reserved for collections of a range of paperwork, including unabridged birth certificates, death certificates, residence permits, visas and identity documents. Here, there is no automated queuing system and again it is security guards that offer guidance and help to visitors. It is also here that re-applications are submitted, confusion reigns and frustration brews for many people, mostly parents. All parents have to register their children and, for those children born prior to 2013, have to apply for an unabridged birth certificate. This document is of critical importance. It is not only needed to prove the parent-child relationship and country of birth but is also needed for claiming citizenship; to apply for a child to attend school; for a child to obtain an ID document; to acquire a passport; and, more recently, for a child to travel. The unabridged birth certificate is the focus of this post which commences with a personal account of how to obtain one and the challenges encountered at the Cape Town DHA. It moves on to discuss the role of unabridged birth certificates in human trafficking, children travelling and identity theft. The post closes by questioning the DHA’s digitisation policy as a solution to safeguarding paper records, applications and certificates.

The unabridged birth certificate: personal reflections

Prior to March 2013 abridged certificates were issued to parents at birth registration (1) and thereafter parents could apply for an unabridged copy. Both parents must be present at the ‘registration of birth’ and sign the application forms. The child’s name is registered, an identity number generated and an abridged certificate printed and issued to parents at no cost. In 2013 the abridged certificate was scrapped and now the DHA issues unabridged certificates as part of the registration of births process. However, there is a huge backlog and a massive demand for unabridged certificates.

In December 2012 the DHA announced that abridged certificates would no longer be issued at registration of births in part to correct the duplication of Identity Documents, identity fraud and human trafficking, but also to enforce the South African Citizenship Amendment Act of 2010. The main objective of the act would be to amend the acquisition of citizenship and provide that any person born of a South African citizen acquires citizenship by birth if born in or outside the Republic, which is a departure from the current act, which makes citizenship of a person born outside of the Republic as citizenship by descent, even though one of the parents is a South African. In March 2013, it began issuing unabridged certificates on the spot for all children at birth registration.  Additionally, to ease the logistical concerns of South African parents, the department would speed up efforts to produce unabridged birth certificates for some 16 million children born in the country between 1996 and February 2013. This was not our experience and we were among thousands of people that had to reapply as a result of misplaced documents. It took eight months for the unabridged certificate to be produced.

Earlier this year, I went to the Department of Home Affairs to reapply for my daughter’s unabridged birth certificate. The first application was submitted when her birth was officially registered in the weeks following her birth. Her abridged certificate was handed over and we were told that we would be informed when the unabridged would be ready for collection in about three months. We were never notified that it was ready for collection, and by the time I remembered to collect it, six months had passed. I took a chance and headed for Barack Street. The certificate had been returned to Pretoria not only because I had failed to collect it but also because, I was told, all uncollected items had been dispatched to Pretoria for safekeeping whilst the Western Cape office underwent renovations. I was not the only one in the queue that had been advised to reapply for the same reasons. My agitation, mostly at myself for not collecting in the specified time, was aggravated further by the long queues. I never made it to the counter that day – it was too busy. At 15:30 (the time at which the office closes) we were all turned away and told to return in the morning. I didn’t bother to return since there was no immediate need for the certificate and because I did not have another day’s leave to spare.

Five years passed and I urgently needed an unabridged birth certificate so I could apply for my child to attend school. All schools (private and public) must have a copy of the unabridged birth certificate and, if not, then a payment receipt that an unabridged certificate has been applied for must be presented before applications can be considered. This is according to the admissions officers at the public and some of the private schools that we were considering. The reason is so that schools have official proof that children are registered in the correct country of birth and to prove the relationship between child and parent[s]. An abridged certificate and the child’s identity number are insufficient for school governing bodies to make a decision as to whether or not a child can register at their schools.

So off I went and again waited in the long queue, despite having arrived only 30 minutes after Home Affairs opened its doors. The submission of the application was a smooth process. There was less confusion among applicants, largely because of the new, automated queuing system and also because I did not have the added stress of caring for a three-week old baby whilst queuing. I paid, was issued with an invoice and told that it would be six months before I could collect the certificate. Previously it had been three months. Six months seemed to me to be a long time to wait for a single printed sheet and especially since the refurbishment included the installation of a new printing facility at the office. After making a query the clerk maintained that it is because Home Affairs has a huge backlog. Six months passed and I received a message confirming that my daughter’s certificate was ready for collection. After two hours of standing I finally reached the counter, only to be told that I had re-apply because there was a problem with the application. This was because the father’s signature had to feature on it. I was furious because before submitting the application I had checked if it was necessary for the father to sign. I explained that this was the second time I was applying and surely there must be a mistake. I was informed that the original paperwork was missing and went missing on the move from the temporary building in the Foreshore area back to the refurbished building in Barrack Street, so the original form which was completed to register my daughter’s birth and from which her ID number and abridged certificate had been generated, was now lost. Not lost in Pretoria as I had previously been told, but lost in transit during the Western Cape branch’s refurbishment project. I was then instructed to complete the form and if I still desired for the father’s name to appear on the certificate then he would have to complete and sign it. The father, I was told, must come into the offices, but should this not be possible I could take the form with me, get him to sign and return the next day because, “we (Home Affairs) have lost the original forms and you are not the only one who has been inconvenienced by our mistake so you can take this but make sure that you return it to me, only me”. An envelope, with the application form inside, was discreetly pushed along the counter to me and the clerk disappeared into an area marked ‘staff only’.

Two weeks passed and I was uncertain about the status of my child’s unabridged certificate so I enquired telephonically and was told that it was ready for collection and had been ready for two weeks. I was surprised that it had only taken a few days to process. I set off immediately, for fear that it would disappear again. I managed to avoid the long queue this time and headed to the first floor. After a 30-minute wait the clerk who had assisted me on my previous visit produced an unsigned and unstamped certificate. I was asked to check the details (name spellings and ID numbers) on the certificate. I confirmed that everything was correct and the clerk disappeared to get the certificate stamped and signed. The clerk reappeared after 15 minutes and handed over the certificate and thanked me for my patience. Although I was pleased to have the certificate which would allow us to apply to schools and very grateful to the clerk who facilitated this with great efficiency; I was also gravely concerned that the original application form was among one of many that had gone ‘missing’ and that at no point in this whole process was I asked to produce my ID document to prove that I was in fact the mother of the child. I could have been anyone and someone else could have my daughter’s application for an unabridged birth certificate.

A number of wider concerns regarding records management in the DHA can be raised from this experience:

•  mismanaged records
•  a large number of missing original registration of birth forms;
•  at no point was any form of ID (driver’s license, ID document or passport) requested;
•  the identity of the co-signatory (in this case the biological father) was of little consequence and was also not needed to be verified; and
•  official application forms are not monitored when in transit between depots and or storage facilities.

The unabridged birth certificate: human trafficking and children travelling

Issuing the unabridged birth certificate without verification of signatories as well as misplacing original application forms is very worrying and this anxiety is amplified further in the context of widespread human and child trafficking in South Africa and the world. Approximately 540 people - 67 of them children - were potentially trafficked into and within South Africa in the last two years: 96 for sexual exploitation, 271 for forced labour, 90 for organ trafficking, four for forced marriages (ukuthwala) and two as drug mules.(2)  In 2008, the International Organisation for Migration estimated that global human trafficking is worth between $7-12 billion dollars annually, making it the third most lucrative criminal activity after the narcotics and weapons trades, although “in contrast to these other criminal activities, however, the penalties for human trafficking in most countries are much less severe, or non-existent”. (3)  South Africa is a signatory to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. As a signatory, South Africa is required to address human trafficking as a crime and make it punishable by law. In July this year, South African president Jacob Zuma signed the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Bill into law. (4)  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2012 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons states that between 2010 and March 2011, South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority reported that 235 adults and 13 children were victims of human trafficking. Of those victims, 132 were trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and 106 for use as forced labour. In ten cases the purpose of the trafficking was listed as “unknown”. (5)  There are no reliable statistics for human trafficking, largely because it is not reported and is part of large criminal syndicates that have yet to be dismantled. Statistics aside, human trafficking should not be happening and even one case is one too many.

Recently, in an effort to deter child trafficking, all parents travelling with children must have a copy of the child’s unabridged certificate as evidence of the relationship between adult (parent) and child. South Africa is the only country in the world that requires children under 18 to produce an unabridged birth certificate in addition to a passport when entering, departing or in transit through South Africa. This new requirement will come into effect as of June 2015 and applies to locals and tourists. It will probably have a negative impact on the travel and tourism industry. According to the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa, tourist arrivals could be negatively affected by up to 20 percent – the average number of passengers travelling with children. The Cape Argus reports that “based on 2013 numbers, 536 000 foreign visitors could be denied travel, and conservatively, the lost income to South Africa from these high-value visitors could be over R6.8bn annually, inevitably leading to job losses in the South African tourism sector”. (6) 

The new laws for travelling with children stipulate:

1. Parents travelling with a child must present an official unabridged birth certificate for the minor that includes the particulars of both the mother and father (this is alongside the child’s passport and flight ticket).

2. If only one parent is moving across the South African border with a child, he or she must present the child’s unabridged birth certificate as well as:
a) an affidavit from the other parent stating that the child is allowed to travel with the first parent,
b) if divorced or separated, a court order showing that he or she has been granted full parental responsibilities and rights for the child or
c) if widowed, the death certificate of the other parent.

3. If a person is travelling with a minor who is not their own biological offspring, they must produce a copy of the child’s unabridged birth certificate as well as:
a) a written statement from both parents or the legal guardian(s) of the child granting the person permission to travel with their minor AND copies of the IDs/passports of both parents/legal guardian(s) AND the contact details of the parents/legal guardian(s) or
b) if the person in question is the legal guardian of the child, a court order proving legal guardianship.

4. If a minor is travelling unaccompanied, they must produce:
a) an affidavit from both parents/the legal guardian(s) stating that the child has permission to travel,
b) the contact details of the parents/guardians,
c) a letter from the person who will collect the child on the other side, with address and contact details included AND
d) a copy of the ID/passport and visa of the person who will collect the minor on arrival.
e) if only one parent signs an affidavit granting the child permission to travel, the minor must also produce a copy of a court order showing that that parent has been granted full parental responsibilities and rights for the child.

The unabridged birth certificate: verification and identity theft

By June 2015 the unabridged certificate will be the most critical document allowing children to travel nationally and internationally, and yet it seems, at least from my experience, that it can be obtained without following legislated procedures. In addition, if thousands of original registration of birth forms are missing, how can abridged birth certificates be verified? This also has implications for identity theft which, like child trafficking, is also on the rise in South Africa. According to a recent study by credit bureau Compuscan, 1 370 cases of identity fraud had been reported to the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS) by the end of April, with 17 percent of incidents occurring in KZN. Gauteng, South Africa’s economic hub, has the highest number of incidents of identity theft (48 percent) followed by KZN and the Western Cape (10 percent). And, Compuscan believes, this hike is likely to continue, with the number expected to rise above 4 000 by the end of the year. (7) 

One way to curb identity theft, so the DHA believes, is through digitisation. It is in the process of implementing the Home Affairs National Identification System (HANIS). This system aims to replace the current paper system with a digital database. HANIS holds the ID numbers, fingerprints and photos of South African citizens. HANIS can only work as well as those feeding information into it. If the levels of corruption are high within the Department of Home Affairs, then false information can easily be fed into the system. A partnership has been concluded between the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC) and the Department of Home Affairs in terms of which banks will be granted real-time access to HANIS for the verification of the identity of prospective and current clients. (8)

Missing certificates and digital solutions?

The move away from paper to digitised records is quickly being proposed as a solution to ease a host of wider social problems such as identity theft, fraud and trafficking. In its 2014/2015 Annual Performance Plan, the DHA aims to digitise DHA data and records to “secure, integrate and automate processes and systems and create a paperless data environment”. If there are problems in safeguarding current applications and records the digitisation of all records seems an ambitious goal to set without proper and efficient monitoring systems in place. Who is accountable for the loss of thousands of records that historians, genealogists, researchers, lawyers and the public use and rely on? What measures will be put in place to safeguard original applications and documents so that the record is maintained and so people can be assured that their identity and heritage is protected?

End notes

1)  http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/gauteng/some-immigration-laws-on-hold-until-june-1.1751638#.VFvbIzEcTIU.
2)  G. Hosken, The Times, “SA is a major highway for human trafficking”, http://www.timeslive.co.za/thetimes/2013/11/06/sa-is-a-major-highway-for-human-trafficking
3)  http://www.irinnews.org/report/80229/south-africa-how-heavy-is-human-trafficking
4) http://africacheck.org/reports/are-30000-kids-trafficked-into-south-africas-sex-trade-every-year-the-claim-exaggerates-the-problem/#sthash.lsJ9Ejkh.dpuf
5) See http://africacheck.org/reports/are-30000-kids-trafficked-into-south-africas-sex-trade-every-year-the-claim-exaggerates-the-problem/#sthash.lsJ9Ejkh.dpuf cited in “Africa check: Are 30000 kids trafficked into South Africa’s sex trade?” by Kate Wilkinson and Sintha Chiumia, http://africacheck.org/reports/are-30000-kids-trafficked-into-south-africas-sex-trade-every-year-the-claim-exaggerates-the-problem/
6) http://www.iol.co.za/news/crime-courts/new-travel-laws-could-cost-sa-r7bn-1.1701590#.VFve0zEcTIU
7) L. Rondanger, “Protect your Identity at all costs”, 17 July 2014, http://www.iol.co.za/news/crime-courts/protect-your-identity-at-all-costs-1.1721448#.VGygLTEcTIU
8) Tessa Smith, “Identity Theft”, http://www.bowman.co.za/eZines/Custom/Litigation/MarchNewsletter/IdentityTheft.html



This post was commissioned by the Archival Platform in its quest to understand the state of records management in the public sector, particularly as this affects access records that should be easily available to citizens.

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