“The System is Offline” must become a swear word in South Africa

South Africa’s new minister of Home Affairs, Leon Schreiber, wants to tackle the issue of system downtime at his department’s offices head-on.

Speaking to 702, Schreiber said the Department of Home Affairs’ (DHA) unacceptable downtime would be a key focus while he is minister.

“‘System Offline’. It needs to become a swear word. It really is not acceptable,” he said. “I would like to be the minister where the system is online, not offline.”

Schreiber said this would involve addressing the department’s failing Internet infrastructure without allowing for a “tender bonanza”.

“So I think that there’s low-hanging fruit here. The reality is that the Internet infrastructure that is failing Home Affairs in many cases is something that can be fixed,” he said.

“We’re in the year 2024. How can we not have fast enough Internet connections at these offices?”

“This is going to be a key focus for me. I think there is a real opportunity to make a visible impact in this regard,” Schreiber added.

For years, the DHA has been plagued by system downtime and excuses that the system is offline.

This is despite the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) spending large amounts of money revamping Home Affairs’ whole network in 2022.

Most recently, it suffered a significant outage in early January 2024, for which it blamed SITA.

The DHA confirmed the outage after the Democratic Alliance published a statement to inform the public of the issues.

“The Department of Home Affairs wishes to regrettably alert citizens that its services are not available at the moment due to a technical problem on the State Information Technology Agency mainframe, which affects access to the National Population Register,” it said.

“We have contacted SITA and have been assured that its technicians and engineers are attending to the matter. We hope that this will not take long to be resolved.”

Its systems were restored later that same day.

“The system was back online from around midday today [Thursday] and services were available to citizens and other clients,” the DHA said in a statement confirming the restoration.

Leon Schreiber, South Africa’s minister of Home Affairs

140,859 hours of Smart ID downtime in four years

While system downtime at the DHA can cause immense frustration for South African residents applying for documents like passport renewals, it also delays critical processes like producing smart ID cards.

In response to questions raised in Parliament by Democratic Alliance MP Adrian Roos in April 2024, former minister Aaron Motsoaledi revealed that the DHA had lost nearly 141,000 hours of ID card production time since the 2019/20 financial year.

Motsoaledi provided a breakdown of hours lost to technical difficulties and load-shedding per province. Unfortunately, he only offered combined figures.

Home Affairs offices in the Eastern Cape were hardest hit, losing over 34,000 hours over the four-year period.

Mpumalanga offices lost the next-highest number of hours at 17,615.

Gauteng, Western Cape, Limpopo, and Northern Cape offices lost between 12,366 hours and 14,680 hours over the four years.

Looking at hours lost each year, the 2022/23 financial year saw the most downtime when the DHA lost nearly 50,000 hours of smart ID production time.

Hours lost in the 2019/20 financial year were also high at 36,077. However, things improved slightly in the 2020/21 and 2021/22 financial years.

The former minister also provided details of Smart ID application hours lost at bank branches through which Home Affairs offers the service.

Gauteng bank branches suffered the most, losing 2,725 hours in four years. This makes up nearly half of the total hours lost at DHA-supported bank branches.

Western Cape bank branches had the second highest number of hours lost, with branches losing 734 hours to downtime and load-shedding over the period.

The table below shows the Home Affairs office and bank branch hours lost per province from 2019/20 to 2022/23.

Smart ID production hours lost to downtime and load-shedding
Province 2019/20 2020/21 2021/22 2022/23 Total
Eastern Cape 7,992 7,661 6,402 12,002 34,057
Free State 2,997 819 1,545 4,217 9,578
Gauteng 4,621 2,755 1,436 5,868 14,680
KwaZulu-Natal 3,283 1,964 2,622 2,542 10,411
Limpopo 2,568 2,331 2,816 4,979 12,694
Mpumalanga 5,990 2,057 3,175 6,393 17,615
North West 2,089 1,266 2,512 5,248 11,115
Northern Cape 2,122 4,291 2,573 3,380 12,366
Western Cape 4,415 844 4,153 4,442 13,854
Total 36,077 23,988 27,234 49,071 136,370
DHA bank branch hours lost
Eastern Cape Banks 0 0 0 188 188
Free State Banks 0 0 0 0 0
Gauteng Banks 1,582 122 115 906 2,725
KwaZulu-Natal Banks 0 0 269 57 326
Limpopo Banks 16 17 69 129 231
Mpumalanga Banks 46 0 97 142 285
North West Banks 0 0 0 0 0
Northern Cape Banks 0 0 0 0 0
Western Cape Banks 146 0 69 519 734
Total 1,790 139 619 1,941 4,489
Overall downtime 140,859

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“The System is Offline” must become a swear word in South Africa