The Smart ID Card - Innovative by Design, Innovative in its Roll-out: A Case Study Profiling the South African Department of Home Affairs' Roll-Out of the Smart ID Cards

Ms Leighanne Naicker  Assistant Director, Skills Development, Department of Trade and Industry (South Africa)Ms Leighanne Naicker, Assistant Director, Skills Development, Department of Trade and Industry (South Africa)
Prior to joining the Department of Trade and Industry, Ms Leighanne Naicker worked at the South African Qualifications Authority in the Directorate: Foreign Qualifications. She also worked for Australia Awards, an international development initiative of AusAid. A graduate of the University of Kwazulu Natal and the University of Pretoria and a fellow of the Public Policy Partnership, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Leighanne is a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria. Her thesis focuses on how policy development can advocate the right to education for the migrant and refugee child. A pragmatic and independent thinker, Leighanne is passionate about policy development and public sector innovation.


As more and more industries embark on a trajectory of digitalisation, South Africa finds itself in a precarious position of either being part of the subsequent economic revolution or risk standing on the sidelines, all the while becoming less globally competitive. In a future that is undoubtedly technology-driven, our country is now forced to reassess its current strategies, policies and investments. This turnabout means that South Africa will now have to be bold where there is need for structural change, support innovation, and explore ways and opportunities of doing things differently. One such mechanism the country could investigate to improve global competitiveness is through nurturing public service innovation. In the past it was virtually unheard of to mention innovation and creativity in the same breath as the public service. But now as the need for reform intensifies, the public sector is being forced to rethink its rigid, bureaucratic ways. The public service needs to shift from being status quo-oriented, with an emphasis on avoiding risks and mistakes, to being change-oriented with risk-taking and continuous improvement on top of the agenda (Kernaghan, 2000). 

This paper illustrates how public-private partnerships, an innovative strategy that governments can utilise in order to remain relevant and improve service delivery, can assist in making that shift.

In February 2016, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan1, during his Budget Speech, highlighted that partnership between government and businesses is a central priority of the National Development Plan (NDP)2 and key to rapid development for economic growth. Gordhan’s sentiments reiterate President Zuma’s call in his 2016 State of the Nation Address (SONA) for the public and private sectors to work together by mobilising resources and capacity for quality delivery of services. The numerous international case studies that highlight how concerted efforts to leverage public-private partnerships can have a tangible impact on quality of life through improved service delivery bear testament to the value of heeding Zuma’s call.


The Department of Home Affairs offers a multitude of services to the citizens of South Africa, as well as foreigners who wish to visit, work or stay in South Africa. The Department’s core functions are:
Civic Services Immigration
  • Maintaining the National Population Register (NPR)
  • Managing the birth, marriage and death records
  • Determining and granting citizenship
  • Issuing travel documents and passports
  • Issuing identity documents (ID)
  • Administering admissions into the country
  • Determining the residency status of foreigners and issuing permits thereof
  • Custodianship of refugee affairs
  • Inspectorate
  • Policy directives


The legacy of inadequacy at the DHA started in 2001 when Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi realised that due to insufficient resources, the DHA was unable to fulfil its dual mandate of civic services and immigration regulation. This situation was exacerbated by the high vacancy rate of 19.2%. The lack of a full staff complement resulted in massive backlogs in the Department. For example, according to Deputy Director-General Avril Williamson, “in June 2007, it took an average of 127 days to get an ID, with some customers waiting as long as 250 days”. The long wait resulted in some people applying for multiple IDs, while others had to renew their temporary IDs a number of times. There were long queues, frustrated customers, complaints, and bad publicity. In addition, there was no mechanism to track and monitor the status or progress of ID applications and backlogs” (Business News 2012).

The DHA lacked operational infrastructure, such as computers and document management systems. This implied that the integrity of citizen records was compromised and the mandate of providing services from the “cradle to the grave” fell short. The DHA had failed to make the transition from a paper-based organisation to one that sought to incorporate technological advancements into its daily functions. 

The DHA did not embody any characteristics of an institution that valued organisational performance excellence, thereby negatively impacting staff morale and attitude. According to Sello Makau, the DHA Chief Information Officer, in Weidemann (Brainstormmag 2013) “the [DHA’s] first task, then, was to train our people correctly to ensure they properly understood the importance of providing a total customer service. We needed them to understand that the public relies on us for their documentation, and there’s nowhere else they can go to obtain this. So providing good and effective service is non-negotiable.”

As a result of this situation, the DHA was constantly described as a negative, dysfunctional entity by the media, general public, organised labour, opposition parties and other organs of civil society. This required the DHA to conduct an honest introspection of its operations and people. 

Though initiated by Minister Mapisa-Nqakula, it was Minister Dlamini-Zuma who was dubbed Minister “Fix-it” by NEHAWU. They hailed Minister Dlamini-Zuma as the guiding force that brought back the DHA “from the abyss, not by hosting a series of unproductive meetings and self-serving publicity stunts, but rather as someone who dirtied her hands, listened to the stakeholders and worked closely with her management collective”.  President Jacob Zuma further lauded Minister Dlamini – Zuma, during her farewell ceremony when she was appointed as the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, when he said, “from 2009, she was given the mammoth task of turning the DHA around. She has turned it into one that is now succeeding in serving the people with efficiency, courtesy and diligence. She has demonstrated that indeed, government services can be delivered better”.


The Turnaround Strategy was a set of strategic initiatives that were funded by a three-year grant from National Treasury. The broad Turnaround Strategy was that burning service delivery issues had to be addressed while transforming business processes and implementing a new service delivery and organisational model.  The DHA applied a multiplicity of creative instruments to breathe life into the Strategy. 

The use of coaching and mentoring and training provision not only revived the morale of staff, but also imparted the necessary mindset change that was required for the DHA to be an institution that was responsive to the needs of the public. 

By prioritising the filling of senior management vacancies with the right people in the right positions, the DHA ensured that the leadership and skills vacuum that was created over time in the Department was significantly minimised. The senior management cadre was able to advance The Turnaround Strategy by providing the necessary leadership and guidance to all staff. At face value, it may not seem that The Turnaround Strategy was innovative or creative, but considering that this was an ‘over-haul’ of an entire Department’s way of thinking and working, it was virtually unprecedented in the South African public service. It may be argued that the Strategy is not very innovative at all, and to the public administration critic this is very true. However the majority of innovations are not ‘radical’ or ‘systemic’ but rather represent the vitally important incremental changes—relatively minor changes and adaptations to existing services or processes—brought about by public service professionals to improve performance and the lives of service users (Albury, 2005).


Following the success of The Turnaround Strategy, The DHA Modernisation Project was born out of the need to harmonise the Department’s business processes to respond efficiently and effectively to the needs of South Africa’s residents. The Modernisation Project is underpinned by the following five business pillars: a single view of the Department’s clients; data integrity; securing the country’s borders; improving client experience; and becoming a client-oriented and patriotic workforce.

In April 2006, the Department published a bid for modernisation of its information technology infrastructure and systems through a turnkey solution known as the “Who Am I Online” or “WAIO” project. The aim of the modernisation programme was to automate all business processes (involving the capture of information, images, supporting documents, and standardized and controlled business processes), which would create a more professional, efficient and effective service environment. The Modernisation programme would bring about improved services and reduce fraudulent activities. With the advent of the electronic age, the Department aims to utilise technology in order to bring government and services to the people wherever they happen to live.

The need to modernise its information technology infrastructure came as a result of the Department being highly administrative and largely paper-based, leading to the National Population Register being contaminated by illegal/false citizen records. The system, due to its laborious non-automated processes, was also prone to genuine human errors. Furthermore, the National Population Register is more than 25 years old and its ancient technology doesn’t meet the ever-changing needs of the Department and the country’s people. A programme was sought to provide the DHA with a single view of the Department, and to expedite services to citizens, asylum seekers, permanent residence applicants, visitors to South Africa’s borders, and permit seekers. This approach was seen to greatly reduce risks and threats to the state, to the economy, and to citizens. The successful implementation of the modernisation programme will also go a long way in addressing identity theft in the country.

Central to this paper is a discussion of The DHA Modernisation Project, the intent of which is to deliver on the scope of work that is additional to its original WAIO mandate (i.e. the Smart ID Card).  This would see the Green Barcoded ID Book replaced. 

Figure 1: Smart ID Card                        
Figure 1: Smart ID Card

Figure 2: Green Barcoded Identity Book
Figure 2: Green Barcoded Identity Book


The Smart ID Card is a first of its kind in South Africa and is a unique contactless card, which has an embedded microchip with biometric security features and houses the necessary biometric data unique to every individual. The information on the chip is laser-engraved to prevent tampering, and aims to cut down on the fraudulent use of fake or stolen IDs. The contactless card also has partitions that can later be utilised by other government entities to store citizen-related information. It is the DHA’s intention to replace the Green Barcoded Identification Books, originally utilised by all South Africans over the age of 16, with the Smart ID Card within the next three years.


Though the Smart ID Card is innovative by design, it is actually the plans for its accelerated footprint that is central to the discussion on innovation in this paper. Rollout of the Smart ID Cards through banks began in September 2015, long before Finance Minister Gordhan stated the following in February 2016: “…and it means being bold where there is need for structural change, innovation and doing things differently. We need agility and urgency in implementation.” It is for this reason that the author loosely labels the DHA an ‘innovation trendsetter’ in the South African public service.

The DHA long realised that in order to accelerate its footprint and its service delivery reach, it would have to be agile while doing things differently. This paper addresses how the DHA became aware of the fact that there was urgency in its proposed implementation and that it would need assistance in order to fulfil its mandate. Following extensive engagements with the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC)3, in September 2015, the DHA embarked on its pilot project for citizens to apply for a Smart ID Card at a bank. A full rollout, however, would result in a lot of public uncertainty, which was why the pilot was ideal. According to Mulgan and Albury (2003) managing risks and incubating new ideas means that there is a need for prototypes (such as in the case of this DHA pilot), as well as the willingness to invest time and resources for their evaluation. 

According to the DHA Minister Malusi Gigaba4, making the Smart IDs available in the banks would provide an alternative channel to serve clients, expand DHA’s footprint, and minimise queues at front-line offices. Partnership with the banks would facilitate efficient and secured ways of accessing services and accelerating the green bar-coded ID book replacement. Rollout of the Smart ID Cards through banks is in direct response to remarks made by Minister Gigaba in July 2015, when he expressed concerns that the DHA might miss its target of replacing 38 million traditional IDs with the Smart ID cards by 2018. The DHA had previously noted that it would take between six and eight years before all South Africans have Smart ID Cards. The DHA has identified the introduction of Smart ID Cards and new passports as the leading elements of its modernisation programme. Of the 403 Home Affairs offices, 140 are currently equipped with the Live Capture system.


In his Budget Speech 2016, Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan stated that it was imperative that the public service “address the weaknesses that create policy uncertainty, build on the strengths that are our resource base, our institutions and our workforce, [and] do things differently where we need to innovate”.

It would seem that long before these words were spoken, the DHA was already in talks of ‘doing things differently’, as they realised the potential of entering into a public-private partnership with the banks. The DHA recognised the potential of the partnership as being able to foster such professional values as efficiency, teamwork and innovation (Kernaghan, 2000). Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are business relationships between a private-sector company and a government agency for the purpose of completing a project that will serve the public. PPPs can be used to finance, build and operate projects, and in this instance banks were used to carry out the DHA’s operations on behalf of the Department. This agreement was entered into to allow the rollout of Smart ID Cards more quickly. 

The need for the public sector to enter into more PPPs becomes increasingly apparent with the realisation that it lacks capacity to deliver its mandate, whether due to unaffordability or dearth of expertise. PPPs can be a way to reach long-term development goals because it takes into account benchmarks and best practices from different experiences across countries. 

Because the DHA does not have a national centre for processing information and applications, there was need to expand DHA’s footprint. Banks were chosen as a partner for the rollout due to their extensive footprint and because transactions are extremely convenient, safe, quick, and more efficient. The project scope was designed for clients who bank with the respective banks, where they would submit their application as well as their biometric data via a kiosk. This included taking a “biometric photograph” that consisted of a fingerprint scan and electronic signatures. As the banks use a Public Key Infrastructure system for taking fingerprints, there was no breach of security from either their side or the DHA. Additionally, all of the banks have a standard floor plan across all branches that ensured increased efficiency and productivity and essentially reduced turnaround times. Finally, the banks utilised a web-based application solution that advocates a paperless working environment, further reducing human error.

The banks agreed to give DHA the space to deliver its services, and as the relationship strengthened, the information-sharing element would be more defined. In terms of meeting capacity constraints, the workforce would be taken from the DHA with staff being retrained on how to deal with the new process.

As articulated in the memorandums of understanding between the DHA and the banks, some of the benefits of the partnership include:
  • Accelerated rollout for Smart ID Cards in a cost efficient manner
  • Wider service access points for citizens
  • Convenience for clients
The objectives for the partnership include:
  • Creating leverage through public private partnerships by utilising available office space in banks 
  • Reducing queues in Home Affairs offices by diverting some of the clients to the new sites
  • Reducing the timeline of replacement of Green Barcoded Identity Books
  • Eliminating the dual means of identification in the shortest possible time
Risk assessment is an ongoing process. One of the risks identified was identity theft, however the Smart ID Card application process would eliminate those risks. For example it would be impossible for anyone to remove and replace ID photographs, as was the case with the Green Barcoded ID Book. It is further envisaged that implementing the following short- to medium-term solutions can further mitigate risks:
  • Designing an end-to-end application and adjudication system 
  • Continual monitoring of the agreed data transfer protocol between DHA and the banks 
  • Consolidation of the positive impacts of change management programmes 
  • Conducting weekly visits between DHA and the banks
  • Establishing a banks/DHA steering committee to monitor performance and to intervene decisively 

Delving deeper into the operations and rationale for the DHA making such radical administrative changes resulting in innovation and service delivery excellence makes one thing abundantly clear – innovation in the public service is here to stay and must by all means be nurtured. But how does the public service, which is most generally associated with rigidity and bureaucracy, enable such an environment and new way of thinking?

Albury (2005) states that half of all innovations were not initiated at the top of organisations, which tells us that nurture emanates from the levels where implementation, operations and front-line administration occurs. It therefore up to public service entities to encourage and support innovation from employees that occupy the lower rungs of the ladder, for it is those employees who witness first-hand the organisation’s oddities, idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. These employees need to be equipped with the tools and techniques of ‘creative thinking’. This can be achieved by maintaining a diversity of staff, paying attention to the needs and expectations of users and frontline staff, promoting formal creativity techniques and creating a culture of well-judged risk-taking and experimentation (Mulgan and Albury, 2003).

1    Pravin Gordhan is a South African politician and current Minister of Finance, a position he had previously held from 2009-2014. He is also the former Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, serving from 2014–2015. As a member of parliament from 1994 to 1998, Gordhan chaired the parliamentary committee that focused on the implementation of the new Constitution and transformation of local government in the post-apartheid period. Gordhan was chairman of the World Customs Organization in from 2000 to 2006.

2    Launched in August 2012, The National Development Plan (NDP) is a long-term South African development plan, developed by the National Planning Commission. It offers a long-term perspective and defines a desired destination of where government would like to see itself in 2030. The NDP identifies the roles different sectors of society need to play in order to reach that goal. It aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030. According to the plan, South Africa can realise these goals by drawing on the energies of its people, growing an inclusive economy, building capabilities, enhancing the capacity of the state, and promoting leadership and partnerships throughout society.

3    The South African Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC) is a not-for-profit company formed by the four major banks to assist the banking and cash-in-transit companies combat organised bank-related crimes. Aiming to be Africa’s trusted financial crime risk-information centre, SABRIC leverages strategic partnerships. (

4    Malusi Gigaba is Minister of Home Affairs of the Republic of South Africa since 26 May 2014. He has served as the Minister of Public Enterprises from 1 November 2010 until 26 May 2014, as well as the Deputy Minister of the Department of Home Affairs from 29 April 2004 to 01 November 2010.