JOHANNESBURG: As if life weren’t hard enough for refugees trying to forge a new life in South Africa, the online system set up to help them has thrown a big, new barrier their way.
Experts say that government technology is not fit for purpose, arbitrarily rejecting pleas for help and slowing aid to eligible refugees and millions of local welfare recipients.
"I was shocked," said Rachel, a social worker whose work integrating refugees in downtown Johannesburg has given her a front-row seat on the system's litany of errors.
Emails often bounce back unanswered, she said.
Automatic, pro-forma replies are spewed out in response to carefully completed extension forms.
Even the costs needed to apply for state permits can be prohibitively high, she said, while many refugees are told to find their way to far-flung offices and apply for aid in person.
It was not supposed to be like this.
"This was meant to make refugees' lives easier, not harder," said the 36-year-old social worker, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals at her inner-city base.
The online asylum seeker and refugee visa extension was set up in 2021 to save applicants time and money and unblock what had become known as a corrupt and cumbersome system.
It was a no brainer for South Africa, which followed a slew of countries in creating an online systems for benefits.
But social workers, human rights lawyers and applicants interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation say the system is often down, while the cost of accessing the internet and lack of digital education are further barriers to essential services.
"Technical issues raised on the online system are dealt with on a case by case basis," said Siya Qoza, spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs, adding that applicants can be asked to come to its offices in person to finalise their case.
Other online state systems – such as welfare grant applications and online ID registrations – are similarly struggling to meet the demands of their millions of users.
The technology is lagging, according to experts familiar with the system, and the poorest pay the highest price.
Almost one in two South Africans get welfare grants, but the Department of Social Development reported delayed payments to some recipients this year due to cyber security breaches, power cuts and difficulties verifying bank details.
"Sometimes the online (grant) systems leave me feeling lost," said 36-year-old street cleaner Zibuyile Bukula.
"I try to go in person to government offices but for that I need cash, and even if I get there the power can be out," said Bukula.
Steep internet costs and low levels of digital awareness and literacy held back 86% of respondents in a Research ICT Africa survey from accessing government services.
"These (state) products should be targeted at reaching the underserved, like those living in poverty who need them the most," said Andrew Partridge, a senior economist at Research ICT Africa, a local think tank.
Costs and corruption
Refugees say before the system went online, permits they needed to work legally, access healthcare or enrol any children in school were renewed in person every three to six months.
"It took time and money but it did work," said Nina, a 27-year-old Congolese refugee who also asked to change her name.
When Covid-19 shuttered the country's in-person centres, the online system seemed the best way forward for refugees and asylum seekers who had not been able to renew their permits.
It was also meant to root out corrupt officials soliciting bribes from the roughly 260,000 refugees and asylum seekers from nearby countries, such as Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who have to renew their permits every few months.
Nina said applicants turned to Internet cafes to submit their forms, before wily cafe owners spotted a business opportunity in their clients' new need for connectivity.
Refugees said they are charged up to 300 rand (US$16.53) to send one email to the Department of Home Affairs, compared to the usual 15 rand for an hour of Internet access. Those without digital know-how are tricked into taking the pricey option.
After several attempts, Nina accepted the online system was broken and used her savings to pay the 150 rand cost to get to a refugee reception office in Pretoria in November.
She left before the sun had risen only to find hundreds of refugees at the entrance. Some had slept there the night before.
Those willing to press rolled bank notes into security guards' hands made it inside the building, she said.
From there, further money had to be paid to get a permit. This account was confirmed by other refugees, social workers and human rights lawyers.
"The department does not tolerate corruption," said Qoza, urging "those who are making allegations" to provide the names of any corrupt officials so they can investigate.
Nina did not resort to bribery – and says she was turned away five times.
"On my sixth visit, the officials told me I was being stubborn and I must just go apply online again," the 27-year-old said.
"The system is broken," she said, adding that she is now unwillingly undocumented, leaving her scared to venture out in case police demand documents or threaten deportation.
Welfare grant seeker Gloria Dlamini used a friend's phone to make her online aid request; when he moved away, her application moved with him, so she was again shut out of the system.
"My grant never arrived, it is possible he took the money but I don't know how to fix this now," said 40-year-old Dlamini, who is currently unemployed.
Make tech work
Those with higher earnings and education can navigate the Internet far more easily, said Partridge, advocating a state campaign to help bridge what is a yawning digital divide.
Hurdles to Internet access in South Africa include some of the world's highest data costs and a lack of devices in a country where some 19.21 million people, or 32% of the population, are offline, according to research site Data Portal.
This has a direct impact on accessing state services like "smart ID" – contactless cards that store users' biometric data.
The number of people in South Africa without identification increased from 4% to 6% between 2018 and 2022, equivalent to 578,000 new people without identification.
And absent ID, citizens struggle to apply for jobs, open bank accounts or get welfare support and driver licences.
Economist Partridge suggested mobile government services to assist individuals struggling with access.
Addressing the underlying issues that make tech dysfunctional – whether it be corruption, electricity cuts or data costs – are step one, said a refugee rights lawyer who requested anonymity to ward off xenophobic attacks.
Until then, swathes of ordinary South Africans, refugees and asylum seekers eke out ways of surviving without documents.
"I am saving up to buy a smartphone so I can access Internet when I want," said 43-year-old Virginia Hlatshwayo who makes a living babysitting and washing clothes in Johannesburg.
"If the systems work, then I will apply for my ID, grants, jobs, everything," said the mother of two. – Thomson Reuters Foundation