Thousands of poor and often unemployed South African women have been lured into marriages of convenience with foreigners seeking South African residency or citizenship.
Glenda Davids (not her real name), a 25-year-old single mother who has been 'married' to a Pakistani immigrant for the past six years, is relieved that she can finally finalise her divorce. Now she's able to marry her boyfriend of 10 years and father of her two-year-old daughter.
Davids is one of thousands of poor and often unemployed South Africans who have been lured into marriages of convenience with foreigners seeking South African residency or citizenship. Payment can come in the form of money or fancy gadgets, such as mobile phones.
Sitting with her crying baby in her lap, Davids says the first and only time she saw her so-called husband was at the Department of Home Affairs Offices in Cape Town on the day they were married. The marriage was arranged by a local community worker who she claims has been running a scam involving other young women in the area.
"He approached me and asked if I could do him a favour – he said he would give me R500 (about $85) to get married to a friend of his who wanted to obtain South African citizenship. I went ahead because I needed the money. After the marriage he went his way and I went mine," she said.
Davids identified the man who arranged her marriage as a well-known community advisor and commissioner of oaths, who helped her family secure their council estate house several years ago. "I felt obliged to help him because he reminded me how he helped our family in the past. He asked me afterwards to recommend other girls, which I did. They also did it for the money," she said.
At least Davids knowingly went into her 'marriage' – unlike thousands of other South Africans who have been shocked to discover their 'married' status after checking with the Department of Home Affairs.
Leslie Mashokwe, spokesperson for the department, said the number of complaints had increased significantly over the past few years.
"Since 2001, at least 3,387 marriages were fraudulently recorded, 2,009 have been expunged by Home Affairs, 1,020 are still outstanding, 245 have been referred to court and 85 have not been finalised due to lack of evidence," he said.
"Some women get mugged, others are robbed [of their identity papers]. Some people just 'lose' their identity document – they work hand-in-hand with corrupt officials," Mashokwe added.
Illegal immigration is a major headache for the South African government. Since the end of apartheid in 1994 the country has become a preferred destination for poor people from other developing countries attracted by its strong economy and multicultural society. One of the easiest ways to obtain immediate permanent residency is to marry a South African – after five years they qualify for citizenship.
Assuming the identity of the legitimate owner of the green pocket-sized identity book is straightforward – the photograph is simply cut out and replaced.
That loophole was sought to be closed by the introduction of new rules last August under which married couples had to prove they have been in a stable union for five years before the immigrant qualifies for permanent residency.
But here too, authorities faced problems.
"Religious leaders and traditional leaders together with corrupt Home Affairs officials have also been involved in the scam. They falsely claim to have administered marriages and issue a stamp," said Patrick Chauke, Chairperson of Parliament's Home Affairs Portfolio Committee. He says racketeers target the poorest of the poor, including women in rural villages.
The continuing abuse of the system, through the tampering of paper documents, has now led the government to tap information and communication technologies.
A research report from the Czech Republic may hold some lessons for South Africa. Titled Strategies for Using Information Technologies for Curbing Public-Sector Corruption: The Case of the Czech Republic, it says petty bureaucratic corruption – of the type seen in ID theft – can be "powerfully diminished" through transparency, achieved through ICTs.
"Generally, the employment of the Internet in the administrative proceedings in all fields of public administration brings more transparency; therefore, it minimizes the opportunities for public officials to monopolise access to relevant information and to extract bribes from their clients," the paper says.
The Department of Home Affairs has introduced a 'Know Your Status' campaign which urges women to check their marital status online. They just have to log onto the department's website and enter their identity number or simply turn up at the regional office.
Nevertheless, there is a massive backlog of stolen identity numbers which enables people to assume multiple identities and claim a variety of government benefits and credit.
Fred Steffers, Managing Director of the Consumer Profile Bureau, a credit information company, estimates that identity fraud cost South Africa around R81 million (about $15m) between 31 July and 31 December last year.
"I believe this is only the tip of the iceberg. Although there were 3.5 million cases of identity fraud reported last year there are many which go unreported."
In its latest attempt to tackle the crime through ICTs, the Department of Home Affairs is designing a national identification system, reputed to be the largest in the world, that will use smart cards and fingerprints to positively identify citizens.
Under the project, known as the Home Affairs National Identification System (HANIS), a high-tech database will hold information on the entire population of South Africa, currently estimated to be 43 million.
In designing an ICT-based solution to fighting corruption and crime in the public sector, authorities in South Africa are not alone. From Asia to Europe an increasing number of countries are coming up with innovative ICT-based solutions to tackling crime and corruption and enforcing good governance.
Mohammed Allie is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town.