This brief focuses on the safety and inclusiveness of digital identity systems, and whether digital identity is improving access inter alia to public and financial services whilst protecting people’s rights. Drawing on the only national representative, publicly accessible demand-side data from the Africa After Access survey it provides insights into the state of digital identity provisioning in South Africa. This builds on previous work conducted by Research ICT Africa (RIA) in conjunction with the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), in which South Africa was one of 10 African country case studies on digital identity (Razzano, 2021).
The ability to be legally recognised as a person and to prove one’s national identity is central to citizenship and democratic participation. It is critical to access to public services, freedom of movement and economic life. It is a human right, enshrined in Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 16 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In South Africa, the Constitution guarantees that every child has the right to a name and nationality (Section 28) and that no citizen may be deprived of citizenship.
Ensuring that every person has a legal identity (through a birth certificate or national identity document) is recognised as a foundation for inclusive development, and advanced as a key ambition in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which set out to, “by 2030, provide legal identity for all” (Goal 16.9), measured by the “proportion of children under 5 years of age whose births have been registered with a civil authority, by age” (Indicator 16.9.1). This is a challenge for many countries, including South Africa where 15 million people are estimated to be undocumented or unregistered, and with almost three million of these under 18 years old (UNHCR & Lawyers for Human Rights, 2021). This high proportion of people lacking a legal identity presents myriad problems, including a heightened risk of statelessness and an inability to access critical public and private services, and which is heightened under pandemic conditions.