ID a fetish?

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South Africans are utterly dependent on their government-issued Identity Documents (ID). Without it we literally cannot apply for a job, access social service, healthcare, libraries, education or acquire a drivers’ licence, buy or rent a house or open a bank account.

Without a green ID booklet and ID number you are a non-person.

Yet the department responsible for issuing the document is arguably the most dysfunctional and corrupt in the South African government: Home Affairs.

Just this week a newspaper carried a report showing a man posing with his new ID book, depicting him as a white person and describing him as female. He clearly was black and mail.

This follows on last month`s tragic suicide of 22-year-old Sikhumbuzo Mhlongo of Hillcrest near Durban in KwaZulu-Natal.

The Pretoria News reports Mhlongo hanged himself last week after leaving a note in which he explained that he had been offered a job but needed an ID to secure the position. He had applied for the document in Pinetown but a Home Affairs official there had simply torn up his application after calling him a foreigner – the implication being that Mhlongo was an illegal immigrant unlawfully seeking an ID.

This is indeed common and many Home Affairs officials make a good income unlawfully supplying such persons IDs. But the contrary is often also the case. Home Affairs and police officials will often accuse citizens of being foreigners based on their personal biases of the victims` appearance. Dark-skinned Shangaan people, among others, are often victims of bureaucrats who insist they are Mozambicans. There are recorded cases of such hapless citizens being deported.      

“I have persevered too long. I have lost my job because my ID application was turned down. It hurts to see my friends going to work,” Mhlongo wrote in the note that brought Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to tears.

“What makes me unhappy about this is that my department is supposed to make lives easier for people,” Dlamini-Zuma was quoted as saying. The minister said Mhlongo’s death is to be a turning point for her department, which she says needs a clean-up.

Quite.

The trouble is at least three ministers and who knows how many directors-general have said the same the last 15 years, yet nothing seems to be getting better. Au contraire.  

But here is what I cannot understand:

Why do we South Africans place any reliance on an ID when we know the department responsible for issuing them is hopelessly dysfunctional?

Why do we insist on people producing this booklet when we all know it can easily be illegally obtained from corrupt officials, that errors are common and that the bearer can indeed be anyone?

Sure, someone may lie about their identity to hide a criminal record or their immigration status. But that implies our departure point as society is that everyone is a liar.

It also means we`d rather accept as face value a flawed government document than the word of an honest man.      

What has become of us!

There are countries, including Britain and the United States where people get by fine without them. Here, for want of an ID a young man has hanged himself.

Home Affairs` dysfunction now has a body count.

And it is our fault. We have made that worthless booklet a fetish object and talisman.

Our obsession has driven a man to his death.

Without an ID one is nothing.

Without an ID Mhlongo is dead.