The system is offline: Home Affairs offices lost 36 000 hours of work in first half of 2023

• Home Affairs departments were non-operational for more 36 000 hours in the first half of 2023.

• South Africans are not informed when the system is down, which means people travel long distances to get to branches only to be turned away empty handed.

• The State Information Technology Agency has invested R400 million to modernise and upgrade the networks.

Offline systems are bringing the Department of Home Affairs to its knees as offices across the country lost more than 36 000 hours of work in the first half of 2023, primarily due to system downtime.

Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi revealed this in his response to two sets of parliamentary questions from the DA`s home affairs spokesperson, Adrian Roos.

He said his department`s offices were not operational for a collective 36 772 hours from January to May this year.

Home Affairs offices are responsible for the provision of vital documents, such as passports, IDs, and birth certificates, which people need in their daily lives.

In fact, in a 2021 National Council of Provinces budget debate in 2021, Motsoaledi said: `Home Affairs is the anchor of economic activity, social activity, and the legal system of the country.`

Motsoaledi previously blamed the downtime on the State Information Technology Agency (SITA), which provides the department with many of its IT systems.

At the 2021 budget debate, he even described the department`s IT systems as the `original sin of home affairs`.

But the downtime data he has now provided, paints a different picture, according to Roos.

In the first three months of the year, the Department of Home Affairs` SITA system had 95% uptime, but there were more than 13 000 hours of system downtime.

In the three months that followed, the SITA system had average uptime of 86%, but 8 600 hours were lost to system downtime.

This means that the Department of Home Affairs` IT systems had more downtime in the months that SITA`s performance was better, Roos argued.

`Other things are going on here. This story that it`s a SITA thing [is] the minister`s narrative and he wants this to be driven, but this shows it`s not right.`

SITA spokesperson Tlali Tlali explained that there were multiple points of failure through the home affairs value chain.

System downtime, he said, can be caused by copper cable vandalism, software that takes up huge memory space, and the upgrading of infrastructure.

He said that SITA invested R400 million to modernise and upgrade the networks.

But this does not remove the responsibility of the Department of Home Affairs to upgrade its package with SITA, Tlali added.

News24 asked the Department of Home Affairs for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Completely untenable

DA MP Benedicta van Minnen said the waiting times were `completely untenable`.

`Accessing government services should not come with such huge barriers,` she said.

She added that she was aware of people who sleep outside the Somerset West branch to hold their place for the next day.

`State services should not be forcing residents to be doing that to access services.`

Roos added that the department should implement systems that allow people to check whether the system is down at a branch.

He said some people may need to travel long distances, only to be turned away at a branch when they find out the system is down.

What people had to say

News24 visited a home affairs branch and spoke to people in the parking area.

South Africa’s asylum backlog worsens the suffering of applicants

Yvette Johnson was visiting the branch for the third time in the past few weeks to apply for an ID and passport.

The last time she was at the branch she was told that their system was down, but that she could wait in the queue in case it goes back online again. 

She is self-employed and said she wasted her day on both occasions.  After a morning in the queue, she was able to apply for her ID, but has to return for her passport.

She described the situation as a `gamble`.

`You have to come back again and again and you don`t know what you are going to get,` she said.

On Johnsons` advice, News24 had a look at the bathroom of the branch. There was a water leak from the urinal, which flooded the floor. 

A man, who would only be identified as Mark, was visiting the branch for the second time with his family. 

He said online resources did indicate what documents would be required at the branch, and added that some of the pages on the Home Affairs website were out of date. 

It was north of 30 degrees Celsius on the day, and two families who were registering their children told News24 that they had spent hours in the queue.