The Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs met on a virtual platform to consider a joint presentation by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) on issues such as the "war on queues" and the progress achieved in improving network uptime at DHA offices.
Updating the Committee on the progress of the branch appointment booking system, the DHA reported that the rollout of the system for Smart identity document (ID) cards and passport applications had seen a reduction of queues in certain offices and improved client satisfaction, which many clients had communicated via social media and direct emails to the Department.
The Department had also entered into an agreement with the banks and launched eHome Affairs on 7 April 2016. Currently, 27 bank branches are operational and available to service clients requiring DHA services. The Department envisaged rolling out to a further 43 sites once the partnership agreements were signed.
SITA also committed itself to provide a detailed plan for upgrading switching centres, expanding the SITA core network, and aggregating all government network demand. It also reported that multiple access links would be provided to ensure service continuity.
DHA/SITA Joint Presentation : Network Uptime Progress Report
Mr Thulani Mavuso, Deputy Director-General (DDG): Institutional Planning and Support, Department of Home Affairs (DHA), led the presentation and delivered an update on the four important issues:
- The DHA's branch appointment booking system;
- Capacitation constraints;
- Mobile units; and
The branch appointment booking system was a success. To date, 200 000 clients have used the booking system since 1 June 2022 to make application appointments for Smart identity document (ID) cards and passports. Offices were being issued with tablets to help clients with no access to computers to book their appointments.
He said the Department had a total of 110 mobile units distributed across all provinces to render services where their services were not easily accessible. Mobile units were distributed to all provinces based on size and population density.
The ongoing partnership between banks and the DHA was discussed. It was reported that the Department planned to roll out the eHome Affairs to 43 further sites once the partnership agreements had been signed. The negotiations with banks to sign the agreements had been delayed mainly because of the State Information Technology Agency's (SITA’s) turnaround times on network connectivity issues. The Department asked that the Committee note the intervention strategies and progress made to resolve the long queues at DHA front offices.
SITA provided a report on progress made on commitments made by the Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, and the Minister of Communication and Digital Technologies, Ms Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, to the Portfolio Committee on 31 August 2021, to jointly resolve network and system issues that were impacting the optimal functioning of DHA front offices.
They described factors that were contributing to network outages. These included the power supply, cable theft and vandalism, and ageing equipment, and indicated how they would address each of these challenges respectively.
See presentation for further details
Ms M Molekwa (ANC) acknowledged the DHA's progress regarding long queues at their offices. She addressed the issue of the collection of Smart cards, and asked if the mobile unit could not assist senior citizens by returning to their settlements, to avoid them having to pay extra money.
She recalled that the Home Affairs mobile unit had been to Moretele Park to get senior citizens to apply for their Smart ID cards. Collecting the cards had become a problem for the senior citizens as the nearest Home Affairs office was at Brits, at least one hour away. She asked whether it was possible to make the process of collecting Smart cards easier and more convenient.
Ms L Tito (EFF) asked for the overall statistics on the vandalism of network infrastructure. To what extent was vandalism a problem, compared to modernisation and ageing equipment? She asked what interventions were being implemented to prevent vandalism and the theft of network infrastructure.
She asked if SITA knew the percentage of Home Affairs' data lines still made of copper, and what the fibre rollout plans were. She commented on the meetings the Director-General regularly attended to discuss issues and the progress reports of the DHA. She asked for a clear indication of the progress of the issues discussed in those weekly meetings, particularly those dealing with long queues at Home Affairs offices.
Mr A Roos (DA) recalled that in a 2019 presentation, the DHA had stated that it had a bronze agreement that entitled it to 95% of network uptime, and when calculated accurately, this meant that the Department could have at least 18 days of downtime. He said it would be unfair to expect a gold or platinum standard of service when one paid for a bronze agreement. Were there plans to upgrade to a more suitable contract so that SITA could invest in infrastructure that would keep the system on for longer periods? The bronze agreement that the DHA had with service providers made it harder for SITA to invest in infrastructure that would increase the system’s uptime.
He referred to the DHA’s presentation in 2019, where it was stated that only 35 out of 691 DHA offices had a backup connectivity link, and that it was the only major government department without dual communication links. He recalled that it had been said that there would be a two-year contract aimed at resolving this issue, and asked if it had been resolved since then. He referred to the Edenvale office, which had an MTN router as a backup solution after cables had been stolen. He asked why hundreds of thousands were spent on network connectivity if routers could also be effective for much less.
He said that the presentation implied that infrastructure vandalism and network connectivity were the main causes of most problems at Home Affairs offices. He referred to a report that was received by the Portfolio Committee in 2019, which showed that over 90% of downtime incidents were caused by internal issues and outdated equipment. They had been told that 88% of the equipment was obsolete. He asked if this had changed, because it had been a year since the Committee had been told that this problem would be solved. He asked for clarity on whether network update switches had been replaced.
He asked how many offices had functional uninterrupted power supply (UPS), since the offices in Garankuwa and Somerset West were examples of offices with UPSs that were not exactly functional because they were still waiting for service providers to come and fix them. He had told the Director-General that the cost of fixing network connectivity problems was surely less than that of the lost applications that got turned away because of power cuts, where the UPS was not working. He asked how many offices had operational UPS, and why it was taking so long to repair them.
Mr Roos referred to the queue management at Home Affairs offices, and commended their online booking systems. He said the problems with the online booking system were that there had been instances where there were multiple bookings for the same time, and that only 30% of the applications at Home Affairs had been done using the online booking system.
He recalled a Committee meeting where there had been a discussion on how people without smartphones would be able to use the online booking system. He had also asked if it was necessary for a DHA official to be present at the banks that offered Home Affairs' services, because ABSA had told him in Stellenbosch that they were not operational because there were no DHA officials.
Mr Roos said another challenge at DHA offices was that pensioners were still not being brought to the front of the queues. He told the Committee about a 70-year-old man who had been made to queue at a Home Affairs office in Brakpan. He said the queue management had been ineffective because it had been left to security. He asked for clarity on the progress of managing the queues at DHA offices.
Lastly, he said that he was aware that the ten posts at the refugee reception centre in Cape Town had been filled. He asked if the office had already been refurbished and reopened.
Mr K Pillay (ANC) commended the progress that had been made and the interventions that had been implemented. He asked about the rollout of banks, and what the delays were. He asked for a list of all generators and backup systems so that the Committee could establish which offices were operational and which required maintenance. When would backup power systems be rolled out in offices that had not yet been modernised, because South Africans should not be left for hours without any services?
He applauded the use of tablets in DHA offices to assist with queues. This was innovative, because it enabled them to make their bookings online instead of standing in long queues. He asked if these tablets could also be used in offices that were not "smart" or modernised. He also asked if the Department would be moving to a full-time booking system, and when this would be the case. He added to what Mr Roos had said about people not having smartphones to access the booking system. He said that there had been a discussion where it was suggested that the booking system be made available to any mobile phone, and not just smartphones.
He asked if long-term evolution (LTE) had been considered as a backup to try and minimise downtime. He referred to the decentralisation of network systems and SITA’s presentation on how access could be given from other networks. He said decentralisation would assist in reducing downtime, because then DHA offices would not rely on just one system. He added that there were alternative systems that would ensure that all DHA offices continued to work.
Lastly, he asked the Committee to look at the systems that banks used, because they had limited offline or downtime. He asked that this be explored to improve or decrease downtime at Home Affairs offices.
Mr T Mogale (EFF) asked if the online booking system had impacted the reduction of queues. He asked for a list of all offices where the online booking system had positively impacted the "war on queues."
He asked if the Department had considered working with Post Offices, especially in areas where Home Affairs offices were not easily accessible.
There were two notes from Ms L van der Merwe (IFP), who was not present, which were read by the Committee Secretary in the meeting. One note suggested that the booking system allow walk-ins, especially in small towns without any Home Affairs offices nearby. This was because many people in these small towns spent a lot of time and money on Home Affairs.
The second note applauded the use of mobile trucks. The mobile trucks could immediately connect to the DHA's mainframe and print documents. The mobile trucks were also able to print unabridged birth certificates in just two minutes, whereas this could take up to six months at DHA offices.
A Committee Member asked why mobile trucks could provide a faster service than actual DHA offices.
Mr Livhuwani Makhode, Director-General (DG), DHA, started by answering the questions of Ms Van der Merwe. He said that DHA offices were currently using a hybrid system, where both online applications and walk-ins were accepted. He added that no DHA office was operating solely on online bookings. The online booking system was a prototype, and the DHA monitored its stability to gauge whether it would be a viable permanent option.
He said that the Home Affairs services at ABSA in Stellenbosch that Mr Roos had mentioned were unavailable because the official assigned to that branch had resigned shortly after being assigned.
Mr Mavuso said the problem of issuing the IDs applied for at Moretele Park, would be solved. The mobile truck would be sent back to the area to issue the new smart cards.
He said he would ask those in charge of property management to audit all functional equipment.
He said the tablets were helping everyone who would stand in long queues, including those those who do not have access to smartphones. This was in response to the question by Mr Pillay on what would be done to assist members of the public who do not have access to the internet.
He said a six- and 12-month review would be done to accurately assess the impact of the online booking system. This would also allow the DHA to complete a scientific analysis. Home Affairs office managers were responsible for ensuring that elderly people did not stand in queues. It had become common practice for managers to walk around Home Affairs premises to ensure this does not happen. He referred to live captures that clearly show elderly people and pregnant women were prioritised.
Mr Mavuso said that work continued at the Cape Town refugee centre. Recruitment processes were still underway, and immigration services would be dealing with this matter.
Mr Ntutule Tshenye, Executive, SITA, said that there had been conclusions on procuring a gold service from internet service providers. The issue of dual service links would also have to be considered.
He answered Ms Tito’s question on vandalism, and referred to the presentation where the statistics and impact of vandalism were discussed. He said that SITA needed to look at what needed to be done and work together with law enforcement to lessen or completely eradicate vandalism. He referred to instances where fibre cuts happened at three places at the same time. These cuts happened in areas where extra effort was needed to replace what had been vandalised or stolen. High-value materials like copper were stolen shortly after being replaced in the areas where vandalism took place. Other means of connectivity, like fibre and LTE, would have to be considered as discussed in the investment plan in the presentation.
There had been 100% uptime since the end of the previous financial year, and the internet connection had helped increase the time in which Home Affairs was operational. Parallel to the investment plan that had been discussed, they had also extended their contract with internet service providers for an additional 18 months.
A delegate from SITA added that contracts for new service providers of access links had been concluded in the North West. Similar processes would begin as soon as approvals had been received.
Mr Njabulo Nzuza, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, addressed the issue of the Cape Town office. He said they were waiting for occupational certificates, and work would commence.
He said the mobile units were designed to accept not only applications, but also issue Smart ID cards. He added that banks and the DHA’s services and model of operations were similar. That was why banks had been approached for their expertise, even though it was decided that the Department would continue working with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The Department was still looking at its network architecture on how to deal with and alleviate pressure. Improvements had been made but not enough, so there were continued efforts to implement these interventions.
He said the booking system did not mean that walk-in applications would not be accepted. The system was created to help members of the public save time and money. Birth certificates were issued immediately on the condition that all documentation was provided.
He assured the Committee that the DHA would continue to work to improve client service.
The Chairperson commended the DHA and SITA on the progress that they had made because of their collaboration. He thanked the two entities for their interaction, and the Deputy Minister for his site visits to various DHA offices.
The meeting was adjourned.
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