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What is the significance of an Identity Document in post apartheid South Africa?

  • Posted on January 26, 2015

The introduction of identity documents can be traced back to the British statesman and governor of the Cape Colony in 1795, Earl Macartney, who suggested in the late 1800s, that deaths, as well as births be recorded.  One of the early population regulation legislation was the Ordinance 49 of 1828, which allowed African people to enter the Cape Colony to seek work provided they took out passes and carried them as they moved within the colony. In 1866, the law stipulated that any Black person found outside the allowed residential area without a pass from an employer, a magistrate, missionary, field cornet or principal chief could be arrested. With the growth of the diamond, as well as gold mining sector in late 1900s in South Africa, the laws regulating movement would prove convenient for controlling workers mobility and enforcing contracts. Black men streamed the mines to make a living.  Housed in compounds which were located away from their families, they had to carry passes. .A series of legislations that regulate the South African population would soon be enacted. In 1923, the Urban Areas Act was endorsed. This law prohibited black African men over 16 years of age, from entering urban areas (deemed as white areas). Pass raids became a feature of daily life. Building on this law, was perhaps one of the most well-known population regulation laws, the Population Registration (Act No. 30 of 1950). It required that people be identified and registered, from birth, as belonging to one of four distinct racial groups: White, Coloured, Bantu (Black African), and other. Indian was added as a racial group later. The Act was accompanied by humiliating tests which determined race through perceived linguistic and/or physical characteristics. Not only were people classified according to racial groups, but were also expected to live in these racial categories under the Group Areas Act, 1950.

It was also in the 1950s, that the government imposed pass-laws on African women. In essence, the South African pass laws were a form of internal passport control designed to segregate the population, severely limit the movements of the black African populace, manage urbanisation, and allocate migrant labour. These measures were counteracted with strong resistance culminating to the 9 August 1956, women’s march in which thousands of women of all races demanded the withdrawal of passes for women and the repeal of the pass laws. Resistance continued throughout the period and on 21 March 1960, South Africa saw the historic resistance of the residents of Sharpeville, where many souls died for their rejection of identity documents. This was not simply a rejection of carrying a brown identification document, but was a rejection of not being identified as a citizen of South Africa. It was also a rejection of the policing which barred the Black body from political, social and economic spaces that were considered white and prone to tarnish. The 1970’s were marked by turbulence and insecurity as apartheid was met at every turn with popular mobilisation and response.

Segregation intensified in the 1980s, when the apartheid government introduced legislation creating independent homelands for blacks. This effectively meant that Blacks were not considered citizens of South Africa. The citizens of South Africa were classified according to eight categories: White, Cape Coloured, Malay, Griqua, Chinese, Indian, Other Asian, and Other Coloured. Black protest escalated and compelled the then state president, P. W Botha, to declare a State of Emergency in July 1985 to crush the violence.  Efforts to control urban Blacks had proven hopeless and the government repealed the Pass laws on 23 July 1986.

The Restoration of South African Citizenship Act No. 73 of 1986 promised to return citizenship rights to its Black population. Under the act, ‘only those who could prove that they were born within the republic prior to their homeland’s independence, and could show that they were continually employed and resident in ‘white’ South Africa, would be eligible to have their citizenship restored’ (Price 1991: 140). Although this political move by the National Party was not close to remedying the country’s segregation problems, it illuminated the political triumph that was to come in less than a decade.  Indeed, the Group Areas Act and the Population Registration Act, were removed in 1991. It is of significance that the essence of the identity document ignited resistance throughout the apartheid period and yet it occupies such a central role in South African’s lives, determines citizenship and shapes national identity.

What is of interest, at this point, is what did the idea of carrying the same identity document, as those classified as citizens from the genesis of the Union of South Africa, in the post apartheid era, mean to the black, Indian and coloured populations? Was being able to: access better health care facilities; education structures; employment opportunities; better living standards; as well as being able to walk in any part of urban South Africa without being arrested if found without a pass; amongst the possibilities offered by carrying the same identity document? After the 1994 democratic elections, a new and more inclusive constitution was drafted. What then, in the current dispensation, does the green identity book and more recently the Smart Identity Document Card, afford post apartheid citizens in South Africa? It is without doubt that many South Africans’ standard of living has improved compared to that of the colonial and apartheid era. However, inequality, unemployment, as well as poverty levels, have not declined. Moreover, if holding the same identity document as those who already had formal and substantial citizenship which guaranteed free movement in places such as Houghton, Hillbrow and Yeoville; all protected by the then Group Areas Act, then what does it mean now that Hillbrow and Yeoville are currently occupied mostly by African nationals and that the majority of South Africans cannot afford to buy a home in Houghton?

Moreover, if the majority of those who voted in the 1994, and subsequent, elections could never afford to educate their children in more affluent schools or work in the kinds of jobs that allow them to be able to access better health care, pension funds and other benefits, what then is freedom, and what is the relevance of an identity document? It also seems relevant at this point to debunk whether part of the struggle was about being able to access certain economic, social and political spaces without restriction, or was it about the pursuit of ownership of such spaces or the combination of both. Lastly, has the green identity book afforded post apartheid South Africans, tangible benefits or have citizens been simply awarded with the possibilities which are yet to be converted into tangible benefits once they have attained economic freedom?

Dineo Skosana is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Gauteng

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