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The South African government is planning to speed up the introduction of electronic ID cards and passports, according to reports, in an effort to crack down on identity fraud. The switchover is expected to cost the government around R1.5bn (around £127m).

ID books are already commonplace in South Africa, and include a photograph and the finger print of the holder. This new legislation would swap the existing paper-based format for a credit card-style ID card with the biometric data stored on a chip, with the transition beginning in six months' time.

But the process, which is expected to take around five years, looks set to be anything but simple. One concerned reader told us:

"We currently have compulsory ID books - large parts of the population don't have one, because they can't afford them (and the new one is about 10 time more expensive). Many still haven't converted from the previous format to the current one, which has now been compulsory for about 10 years.

The new-style ID card will cost R120. Minimum wage in South Africa is R4.10 per hour Costs have not been announced for the new passports.

South Africa recently updated its driving licence system with citizens being called to update their documents by birth month. Those late to re-register had to queue for up to 12 hours for their credit-card style licences.

A spokesman for the department of home affairs told IOL.co.za that the current ID book is too easy to forge. He also warned that delays in launching the new system have given forgers a head start: "The slow process has opened a gap for people running scams to take advantage of the situation," he said.

Barry Gilder, the director-general in the department of home affairs, said that transferring the biometric data and biographical information to a chip will make the cards impossible to fake. If so, it would be something of a first.

Gilder acknowledges that the switchover will be "a mammoth task, far bigger than anything we saw while driver's licences were being converted". ®

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