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ID Blocking: Lawyers for Human Rights Files Court Challenge in South Africa

In May 2012, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) initiated a campaign to address the issue of “duplicated IDs” in the National Population ...

In May 2012, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) initiated a campaign to address the issue of “duplicated IDs” in the National Population Register (NPR). 

Initially, about 29 000 IDs were identified, which quickly escalated to approximately 500 000 IDs within a year. DHA reported to Parliament that these issues originated during the consolidation of apartheid-era population registers into the NPR ahead of the 1994 elections. 

DHA distinguished between duplicate ID cases (one person sharing an ID number with multiple people) and multiple ID cases (one person assigned multiple ID numbers). 

By August 2013, DHA published a notice of its intention to “invalidate” and “cancel” all unverified duplicate IDs by 31 December 2013. These IDs had already been “blocked” on the NPR by the time they were advertised.

Over time, DHA’s ID blocking practice has become increasingly arbitrary, affecting a growing number of individuals. In December 2020, the Minister of Home Affairs revealed that DHA had nearly a million blocked ID cases, now encompassing duplicate IDs and ‘fraudulent’ IDs.

In the past five years, LHR has assisted over 500 people with blocked IDs – with the majority being marginalised, black South Africans. None were aware of their blocked IDs until they attempted to access another service e.g., applying for passports or new IDs, renewing driver’s licenses, opening bank accounts, or applying for social grants. 

ID Blocking: Lawyers for Human Rights Files Court Challenge in South Africa

They discovered the issue quite literally by surprise. None received prior notice of DHA’s intention to block their IDs or investigate their status, nor written reasons for the decision. 

The criteria for blocking IDs is seemingly based on subjective and discriminatory facts such as the shape of inoculation marks, record of frequent cross-border travel, alleged deportation records, inability to speak a specific local language, bearing a ‘foreign-sounding’ name, or having one parent or spouse of foreign nationality.

 Furthermore, none were given an opportunity to make representations before the ID was blocked or before the finalisation of the investigation. It is a unilateral act by DHA.

DHA claims that ID blocking is an “administrative tool” used to maintain the accuracy and integrity of the NPR. The “block” occurs when a marker is placed against an ID number either indicating that it is tainted by an administrative or clerical error, or suspected fraud or misrepresentation. 

To resolve the issue, affected individuals are required to provide extensive documentary evidence of their citizenship or entitlement to the ID in question, including birth records, school records, letters from teachers, letters from a traditional authority, parents’ documents, grandparents’ documents, and even DNA evidence. 

They must also submit biometric data and participate in interviews conducted by an immigration officer, sometimes involving family members or witnesses. The DHA raises suspicions on IDs it has itself issued, but the burden to prove the ID is blocked in error falls squarely on affected individuals.

The practice is inconsistent across the DHA offices and many cases remain unresolved for two reasons. Firstly, some people cannot produce all the required evidence, especially those with unregistered births or parents who were unregistered (mainly due to inadequate civil registration records for black South Africans pre-1994). 

Secondly, despite DHA’s claim of a six – eight week processing time, the majority of affected people experience inordinate delays, often waiting for months or years for a resolution.

The Court Challenge

LHR has filed a court application against the DHA declaring its conduct unlawful and unconstitutional and seeking an order to unblock the IDs. LHR represents over 100 clients whose IDs are currently blocked. LHR contends that DHA’s ID blocking practice reflects a contempt of people and processes that undermines the sanctity of the Constitution. 

This is confirmed by the South African Human Rights Commission in a 2018 report condemning the practice. It is unconstitutional, unlawful, and infringes on numerous human rights, including the right to citizenship; the right to just administrative action; and the right to human dignity.

ID blocking can result in statelessness as it effectively strips affected individuals of their citizenship and dignity. They become ghosts in the system unable to obtain passports or drivers licenses, unable to vote, unable to education and healthcare, unable to open bank accounts or obtain marriage, birth, or even death certificates. 

They are rendered undocumented and vulnerable to unlawful arrest and deportation. The Constitutional Court itself emphasized that “the systematic act of stripping millions of black South Africans of their citizenship was one of the most pernicious policies of the apartheid regime, which left many as foreigner in the land of [their] birth”. 

Regrettably, even today, thousands of individuals from the same demographic targeted by the apartheid regime, suffer this same injustice. LHR wants the court to order DHA to ensure a just and fair process that is in line with the Constitution and the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA).

The Children’s Institute (CI) at the University of Cape Town, represented by the Centre for Child Law (CCL), has joined as a friend of the court. CI supports LHR’s argument for a just and fair process, and provides further evidence highlighting the harmful consequences of ID blocking on children. 

Parents with blocked IDs are unable to register their children’s births or help them obtain their own IDs. This leaves children undocumented for years, infringing on their rights to a name, nationality, and identity. 

The CI’s evidence demonstrates that undocumented children face a significant risk of being excluded from social grants and access to education, even when they are legally entitled to these services. 

Consequently, DHA’s ID blocking practice also limits children’s basic socio-economic rights. The CI’s affidavits include case studies of four South African citizen mothers whose IDs have been blocked, resulting in their children’s births going unregistered for years. 

The children have suffered exclusion from social grants in early childhood – the period when they need it most; along with delays in school admission, refusals of school admission, and exclusion from school programmes like access to free uniforms and participation in sports

The Campaign: Unblock My ID, Unlock My Life

“We are so desperate, frustrated and broken due to the problems caused by Home Affairs. Our lives are at a standstill. We can’t do anything…NO ID, NO LIFE.” ~ the words of SB whose ID has been blocked since 2018

In conjunction with the court challenge, LHR has a media campaign to hold DHA accountable for this unjust practice and shed light on real-life stories of individuals like SB, whose lives have been profoundly impacted and put on hold due to blocked IDs.

Join us in calling for an end to this unjust practice and restoring dignity to the thousands of people who have suffered. Follow the hashtag #UnblockMyIDUnlockMyLife. - Lawyers for Human Rights 

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