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Home affairs IT systems feel load-shedding crunch

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 12 Apr 2023

South Africa’s power supply crisis is adding to the long-term, ongoing IT system downtime woes at the Department of Home Affairs (DHA).

This is based on a Parliamentary reply to Good party MP Brett Herron’s question about the “greatest issues” plaguing the home affairs IT system, notably the common causes for system reboots or shut downs.

Herron also wanted to know about the maintenance and security of the DHA’s IT systems.

In the written response to the MP’s question, the department states power failure/load-shedding is currently the main cause of system downtime.

Says the DHA: “Whilst there is effort to ensure generators and UPS are working at the offices during power outages, there are instances where the generators and/or UPSes are in need of maintenance.”

As power utility Eskom continues to implement varying stages of load-shedding, state and private institutions alike have had to contend with the impact of rolling power outages on business continuity.

Telcos and the financial services sector have detailed the financial implications of power cuts on their operations.

Similarly, state signal distributor Sentech recently revealed it is spending more than R2 million per month to keep some sites operational during rolling blackouts.

DHA branches – whose core function is to manage identity, civil status and migration of citizens – experience interruptions and network downtime issues more often than not, with the blame sometimes placed on government IT agency SITA’s doorstep.

Last May, banks that partnered with the DHA to fast-track the rollout of smart ID cards raised concerns about the reputational damage the department’s system downtime will cause them if they rollout more services on behalf of the department.

The DHA has a partnership with Absa, First National Bank, Nedbank and Standard Bank, which allows citizens to apply for smart ID cards and passports. The partnership is in line with efforts to replace close to 38 million green barcoded ID booklets.

Using eHomeAffairs, citizens are able to apply for their smart IDs and passports online, and finalise the application process at certain bank branches.

The home affairs department has indicated it is embarking on a modernisation of its entire network, in a bid to reduce long queues caused by system downtime.

The snaking queues have been a problem at the DHA over the years, and home affairs minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi previously said the department is making “significant progress” towards making front offices work properly.

Home affairs minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi. (Photograph by GCIS)
Home affairs minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi. (Photograph by GCIS)

The department is in the process of a digitisation project to convert more than 340 million paper-based South African civic records into an electronically searchable format by 2025/26.

It says 3 175 442 documents have been transferred into digital format to date.

Additionally, the project aims to contribute to public and social employment by recruiting unemployed young graduates to work on the digitisation effort.

The home affairs digitisation project was announced by president Cyril Ramaphosa during his 2022 State of the Nation Address (SONA).

At the time, Ramaphosa said the DHA will recruit 10 000 unemployed young people for the digitisation of paper records, enhancing their skills and contributing to the modernisation of citizen services.

This year’s National Treasury Estimates of National Expenditure document shows the DHA has been allocated R839.9 million in the 2023/24 financial year for its digitisation project.

Of this amount, R559.5 million will go towards compensation of young people employed for the project, with the remainder of the funds used to procure ICT equipment, goods and services.

At this year’s SONA, Ramaphosa revealed the department has appointed the first cohort of 10 000 unemployed young people, and plans to recruit more graduates during the course of the 2023/24 financial year.

In terms of securing citizens’ personal data on the DHA’s IT systems, the department notes it has implemented biometric access control management to safeguard sensitive transactions, which are stored in a forensic vault.

“The NPR, ABIS and HANIS have several security measures implemented to protect citizen data. These are the main systems where citizens’ data are stored. Regular vulnerability and penetration tests are performed to identify possible vulnerabilities and fix them. A project has been initiated to review the current enterprise architecture and introduce the necessary improvements.” 

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