African Integration: What do New National IDs in Lesotho and South Africa Mean?

Photo © GCIS
Former President Thabo Mbeki, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Zinzi Mandela receive Former President Nelson Mandela's Smart ID Card during the official launch of the Smart ID Card on Mandela Day at Union Buildings, Pretoria.

National identity, a sense of belonging and the right to citizenship are fundamental human rights. In South Africa last week, in addition to celebrating the 95th birthday of Africa’s living legend, Nelson Mandela, the government also started rolling out 'smart' national identity documents (IDs).

These secure, tamper-resistant documents were issued to, among others, senior political activists who were at the forefront of the struggle against Apartheid. It has also been hailed as another step on the way to consolidating inclusive and non-racial citizenship – in contrast, for example, to apartheid-era documents that limited the movement and employment of many in this country.

Similarly, this month Lesotho started issuing comparable national IDs that would consolidate all important information about its citizens in one secure document. This is aimed at cleaning the national citizen database and ensuring that abuse of the country’s official documents (mainly in the form of passports) ends.

In both countries, the idea is to facilitate access to services, ease movement and give value to citizenship. In relations between the two countries, abuse of Lesotho travel documents has been a thorny issue, and the issuance of smart documents could contribute to reducing tensions in this regard. So these developments could be seen as measures towards harmonisation and integration of movement control between the two neighbours. Harmonisation of systems, policies and laws, and the promotion of free movement of peoples are among the top objectives of the African Union (AU), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to which both countries are committed.

However, one is tempted to ask about the remaining ‘elephant in the room’ between the neighbours: the issue of citizenship. What will the implication of the smart ID system be for those qualifying to hold citizenship of both countries? This is not a simplistic or irrelevant question, for given the interconnectedness of these two and the disharmony in their approaches to citizenship, there are bound to be complications, and it is ordinary citizen who may suffer.

Lesotho’s laws do not allow dual citizenship, while South Africa’s laws do. The complication here is threefold. Firstly, in the spirit of reciprocity (and protecting its national interest no doubt), South Africa in 2010 amended its citizenship law to only permit dual citizenship with those countries that also allow it –and therefore to forbid it for those that do not. This amendment was put into operation earlier this year, and threatens to criminalise Lesotho-South African citizens.

Secondly, because Lesotho forbids dual citizenship (requiring people who or hold qualify for it to choose one or the other), many of its citizens who are also South African citizens (or of other countries) have kept this fact hidden. Others, whether because of this disharmony of citizenship laws or for other reasons (e.g., many South African refugees were issued Lesotho documents during the struggle), have documents that portray them as two different persons across the two borders: details of birth, parentage, etc., differ in documents issued by Maseru and Pretoria. What will happen when the smart documents start ‘talking’ to each other?

Third, given the complexity of effective integration of peoples between the neighbours (familial, personal, cultural, economic, etc.), and the effects of restrictions occasioned by an effective administration of controls, the issue is not only the porosity of Lesotho’s hitherto weak national ID system, but the real damage done to citizens.

So what does the ostensible disharmony mean? On the one hand, Lesotho insists on single citizenship despite the reality that a significant number of its people cannot (or are unwilling) to shed South African citizenship (and those who do stand to forfeit opportunities unavailable there), and on the other, South Africa’s efforts to harmonise its laws appear to hurt its people (while protecting itself and reciprocating Lesotho’s stand). What of the goal of ‘…sustained economic growth and regional integration’ through the adoption of harmonised policies as preached by the APRM and other continental bodies? What will this mean for the dream of a united Africa that is strong because of that unity and the establishment of an ‘African Common Market leading to an African Economic Community’?

Two possibilities may be worth exploring. First would be for both countries to allow citizens who qualify to have permanent residence in one and citizenship in the other – in the manner that ECOWAS has approached free movement and residence. A second, but unlikely possibility would be for Lesotho to change its law, thereby decriminalising many of its citizens qualifying for dual citizenship (of not only South Africa). In the SADC region, other countries have already gone this route (Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Namibia). It would be a logical next step towards harmonising policies and promoting integration. An amnesty for those affected to regularise their status would then need to be agreed.

Of course, fear of being ‘swamped’ by foreigners is real, especially if these outsiders have political or economic power, engage in criminal activities or otherwise threaten the interests of the ‘host’ country. A resolution along the lines of the above suggestions would need strict application of the rules, and robust systems of checks and verification – thus reinforcing the significance of the new IDs.

In the final analysis, government exists for the sake and service of its citizens, and when governments fail to take into account the effects of their actions on the people, Africa shall remain poor, unequal and marginalised. It is time that laws facilitated harmony and increased prospects for citizens, rather than criminalise, discriminate and divide them. The harmonisation reflected in the adoption of smart documentation should work for the promotion of citizen welfare.