286 million records will be digitised by the Department of Home Affairs through the digitization project, launched in partnership with Statistics South Africa in Pretoria on Wednesday.
Birth certificates would be prioritized, followed by other documents, Minister Malusi Gigaba said.
He said the move to a paperless system was to cease slow processes, security risks and opportunities for corruption, signifying a transition from the old systems of record keeping to a modern, efficient and secure storage method.
“Modernising the department means using the most modern, innovative technology and management approaches to fulfill our mandate. It means taking inconvenience away from our clients,” Gigaba said at the launch.
Due to the apartheid legacy, the country inherited a fragmented and manual based system of record management, where only whites were properly managed and filed, as opposed to records of non-whites.
“The failure to keep proper records created a situation where there was no trace of the birth registration of many black South Africans, and thus their recording in the National Population Register,” Gigaba said.
The department has 286 million records, 90% are in paper format. Most of these records are of births, marriages, deaths, ID applications, naturalization and permitting, dating back to the late 1800s. These include 110 million birth records, which carry records of generations that can be used to construct family trees, Gigaba said.
The huge challenge was space for storing these paper records, as it was scare and expensive. Paper records were vulnerable to loss, fire and deterioration despite the care with which they are stored.
“The time required for staff to physically locate and access individual records means lead times of weeks and months for many transactions, such as amendments and reprints of older birth and marriage certificates. Digitising these records means we will be able to access records quickly,” he said.
5.8 million birth records will be digitised per year and ID number for easy retrieval will index records.
Records can now be accessed immediately, irrespective of location.
“Electronic records can be viewed and accessed by more than one person simultaneously, eliminating the reliance on individuals for knowledge, as the document is accessible by multiple staff.”