President Jacob Zuma, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikezela Mandela, will be the first South Africans to receive new "smart" ID cards when they are launched this month.
Naledi Pandor, the South African Department of Home Affairs (DHA) Minister, outlined the plans for introducing the new cards at a press conference this morning, outlining a lavish launch ceremony and saying that combined with a new and secure population database, the cards will improve government service delivery and cut down on fraud in both the public and private sector.
"One of the phases for us to work through is that of ensuring that businesses, banks, the insurance industry and other partners have the necessary equipment to verify smart ID cards," Pandor said. "This means that the private sector itself will benefit from knowing exactly who they are transacting with."
Currently, all South African citizens over the age of 16 are required to carry an ID book and submit fingerprints and photographs for the population register. Replacing the existing 'green book' system will take between six to eight years, says Pandor.
The new cards will be issued from 18 July – an date significant as "Mandela Day", the internationally recognised celebration of the ex-president's achievements which takes place every year on his birthday.
They are being provided by French security firm Gemalto, and will feature an embedded microprocessor which will store personal details along with a digital photograph and fingerprints, encrypted using 2048bit RSA and Elliptic curves algorithms using the firm's eID technology.
Gemalto's Eric Billiaert said that the new cards will initially be used to provide access to government services, helping to combat widespread problems with fraudlent documents.
"It is the media of choice for granting access to e-government applications," Billiaert said. "It can also be used as a means of hosting a range of other applications like e-payments, e-purse, digital signature, authentication, identification and travel cards."
Banks, insurance companies and some retail companies already have had access to the Home Affairs National Identity System (HANIS) since 2010 in order to verify customer identities, but experts say that problems with fraudulent documents and bribery of officials have prevented this system from operating effectively. Consumers, meanwhile, often have to provide several forms of ID for purchasing SIM cards and even satellite television subscriptions.
Steven Ambrose, of South African analyst firm Strategy Worx, said that streamlining ID checks will be a huge benefit to businesses.
"Ultimately, this system should reduce the huge amount of duplicated with systems such as RICA (the process of producing ID to buy a mobile phone) and FICA (for financial services), and bring down the levels of bureaucracy experienced with the current manual paper book based system," Ambrose said.
The issue around corruption of officials with access to the population register, however, remains.
"The danger of privacy and security lies in the systems put in place to secure the national database, and access to this database, from the various users of the system, and not the actual card."
Senior Security Consultant at Trustwave's SpiderLabs in Pretoria, Philip Pieterse, said that the new cards will help foreign investors looking to do business in South Africa.
"Overseas businesses will feel that South Africa’s way of identifying credentials might be more up to European and American standards by implementing these smart ID cards, and therefore would be more keen to invest in South Africa," he said.
He did, however, raise concerns that the roll-out may not be as smooth as planned.
"The government says that it can print three million ID cards a year," Pieterse said. "But according to the 2011 census, the country’s population is 51.77 million. So three million cards a year would take 17 years. Eight years sounds enthusiastic."