Parliament nixes key Home Affairs civil security project

The Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs has resolved that the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) be instructed to suspend its key “Who am I on-line?” identity management project with immediate effect.
The ruling African National Congress and opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) have joined forces to demand a halt to the R2.5 billion programme that is said to be crucial for the department’s restructuring as well as for the country’s preparations for next year’s FIFA Confederations Cup and 2010’s Soccer World Cup.
The DHA has long been the archetype of a dysfunctional SA government department with corruption and maladministration rampant. The department has not had an unqualified state audit in a decade and official SA passports and identity documents can be illegally obtained with such apparent ease that no-one forges them.           
Then-president Thabo Mbeki appointed State IT Agency (SITA) CEO Mavuso Msimang Home Affairs director general in May last year to help turn the department around. By then “Who am I” was already a year behind schedule. 
Further holds-ups dogged the project and Msimang only in July this year signed a contract for the implementation with the preferred supplier, BEE ICT company GijimaAst.
By then aspects of the deal had already been referred to the Auditor General by the portfolio committee for investigation after persistent allegations of irregularities surrounding the processes followed to award the deal reached its ears. Insiders have dismissed the claims as “sniping from the sides”.
What it does
“Who am I?” could potentially revolutionise the department`s business by providing fool-proof and crook-proof access to two core systems to DHA branch offices and field teams. The national population register and the Home Affairs National Information System (Hanis) have, to date, only been accessible to officials at the DHA`s Waltloo head office, resulting in the issuance of urgent documentation taking at least a week.
With “Who am I`s” positive biometric verification at DHA offices around the country, temporary identity documents could be issued immediately on Hanis and NPR verification while all transactions can be traced to a specific official, thereby making fraud and corruption more risky for those tempted by bribes. Officials not entitled to use the system will also find themselves unable to do so – or easily caught when they do.          
The NPR is a mainframe database containing the identity records of every living South African citizen, resident and deported illegal, while the Hanis automated fingerprint identification system contains their photographs and fingerprints. Hanis is used to verify identity and acts as a “guard dog” for the national population register.
“Who am I” will allow DHA officials, border guards and immigration officers countrywide to check anyone`s identity against the NPR and Hanis. “Who am I” will also simplify the visa application process for foreigners – which is why it is meant to be part of government`s 2010 preparation.
The system could also be rolled out to the SA Police Service and the courts as part of the Integrated Criminal Justice System, allowing detectives and prosecutors to verify people`s identity against the complete national database, rather than the more limited police fingerprint databank that only contains the prints of those who have fallen foul of the law. 
Parliament acts
Relations between Msimang and the committee, particularly chairman Patrick Chauke quickly soured.
DA home affairs spokesman Mark Lowe says indications are the project can cost up to R4 billion. “Questions about the procedure followed in awarding the work of the project and its apparent failure – particularly in the light of the forthcoming election – all remain unanswered after several months,” he says.
In addition to calling for a halt to the project, the committee also wants Msimang, Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and the Auditor General to appear before them “within seven days … to discuss the matter and get answers to our questions and concerns.”
Lowe adds that the portfolio committee together with the then-minister of Public Service and Administration Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi and Mapisa-Nqakula met the management of SITA to discuss serious concerns related to the project.
“To date our concerns have not been addressed and our questions have not been answered.”
He says the committee was yesterday informed by the Auditor General “that they too have been unable to secure information and documentation relating to the project. This is totally unacceptable.”
“When viewed in the light of the latest disclaimer of opinion registered by the Auditor-General in the 2007/2008 Annual Report of the Department, the DA believes that the time has also come to seriously question the ‘Turnaround Strategy` implemented by the DG last May”, Lowe charges.
Attempts to reach Msimang, SITA and Gijima this morning for further comment proved fruitless. Home Affairs spokeswoman Siobhan McCarthy subsequently confirmed that Msimang was at Parliament this morning, while Mavisa-Nqakula was in a Cabinet meeting. She could not comment on the portfolio committee’s decision.    
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