Dlamini Zuma sets her sights on a "world class" department

Thursday, November 5, 2009

She has been dubbed Doctor Fix It - a label that has probably propelled the new Minister of Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma to work tirelessly to ensure that the challenges facing the department are indeed fixed.

At the end of her tenure, Dlamini Zuma, a medical doctor by training, wants to see a Home Affairs that provides a "world class" service to South African citizens and visitors to the country.

Speaking to BuaNews at her official residence at Bryntirion Estate, the 60-year-old mother of four daughters and one of the longest serving government ministers appeared very relaxed as she looked back at her first few months at the helm of the historically embattled department.

She is not shy to acknowledge that it would probably take years to finally see the desired results of the department's turnaround strategy. But with only five months in office, she is happy with the new direction Home Affairs is taking.

The minister explains carefully that Home Affairs is not just a department concerned with the issuing of passports and recording the particulars of citizens.

As far as she is concerned, Home Affairs is responsible for the security of the state while the department is also at the centre of government business. But Dlamini Zuma knows having been Minister of Foreign Affairs for nearly a decade, and the Minister of Health prior to that, was not necessarily going to make her move to Home Affairs any easier.

"It still is a very steep learning curve for me because though I have some experience in government which is very helpful, I have to now learn the specifics about Home Affairs; first what is the mandate of the department. What is the state of Home Affairs and what can be done to improve it."

Since taking up her new portfolio in May, Dlamini Zuma has already seen the implementation of several strategies to bring about a new face for Home Affairs. The changes include the introduction of an electronic live-capturing system for ID and passport applications.

The minister is convinced the system, already rolled out at more than 40 Home Affairs offices, will meet all expectations.

She takes a deep pause before continuing to outline her plans for an efficient Home Affairs. In fact, if it were for her, Home Affairs would be a "paper-less" department. Or, a department where the service is so excellent that individuals can be issued with their documents at the same time, when they lodge their application.

She makes it clear that Home Affairs, as the "face of the country", has to do things differently.

"A well functioning Home Affairs can go beyond just dealing with citizens, it can be a planning tool, and it can assist planning for government in many areas. A well functioning Home Affairs can also assist in the development of our economy because if we say we are short of engineers, Home Affairs can go out and recruit and facilitate the coming of those skills that we need for the development of our country".

In fact, things should be such that the population register at Home Affairs was so credible, that if banks wanted to verify a person, they should be able to link up with the department and get the information on the spot.

Dlamini Zuma comments on the rampant corruption and inefficiency of some officials at Home Affairs offices across the country.

She is still upset about the death of Sikhumbuzo Mhlongo, who committed suicide after alleged ill-treatment by officials and it was this incident that prompted her to set up a hotline to report the behavior of the department's officials across the country.

"Home Affairs has to play its role in stamping out corruption and inefficiency," she says emphatically. But the minister quickly points out that without help from the public, the goal of a corrupt-free Home Affairs Department may prove impossible to achieve.

She admits though that the hotline is not receiving the required publicity to make it work. People were still approaching her at gatherings wanting to know how they could resolve their problems with IDs. "I also get a lot of SMSs so I think its not getting enough publicity".

To try and minimize the herculean problem of corruption, the department is also rolling out a system whereby staff who produce and issue passports will be fingerprinted electronically after handling documents, which makes it easy to track where a document got lost or stolen.

Dlamini Zuma is also serious about ensuring that all new born babies in South Africa are registered and have birth certificates. "Late registration is another Achilles Heel at Home Affairs. We are going to run a huge campaign to ensure this gets into people's heads. But it should be clear that the campaign is not only aimed at registering new borns, but all children up to the age of 15".

She insists that all teenagers should have IDs at the age of 16. This, she says, will eliminate the pressure especially during elections where both Home Affairs and the IEC are often required to run big ID campaigns. "We want young people to be secured from 16 by having their IDs". It's also one less thing for teenagers to worry about when they are in their matric year.

For her, it's quite clear that the ingredients needed to get Home Affairs running smoothly is excellent human resources, as the department's work is labour intensive; proper infrastructure and a wider footprint of offices.

Not the current situation, where in some parts of the country, the ratio of the number of offices versus the population size in the area is abominable. For example, a sprawling township like Soweto has only one Home Affairs office and Umlazi on the other hand has no office.

Besides appearing to be sympathetic to the needs of customers, officials, she is adamant need to possess the proper skills required from front-line staff. And the same for all managers at Home Affairs offices.

She attributes poor services from some front-line staff to perhaps the fact that most simply have a matric qualification and very low-level skills. But, she adds the department wants to remedy this through training for frontline staff and managers.

Dlamini Zuma seems to have all the ingredients in place for the "world class" department that she envisages, and if she gets the recipe right, then all South Africans can only stand to benefit from this department that impacts directly on their lives, at every stage from birth to death.