Birth Registration: South Africa

One of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure that all citizens—children included—have some form of legal identity by 2030. The imperatives of formal identification should be obvious: IDs are a way for governments to confer the rights of citizenship, including the delivery of basic social services such as education, health, and human rights. And yet, according to the UNICEF, 230 million children under the age of five did not have their births registered as of 2013.

“Hundreds of millions of children whose births are not registered have limited access, if access at all, to health services and educational opportunities.”

Consider the implication of this: hundreds of millions of children whose births are not registered have limited access, if access at all, to health services and educational opportunities. Moreover, they are especially vulnerable to atrocities such as child trafficking and other forms of exploitation. Compounded with the fact that the vast majority of unregistered children live in the developing world, these children are not only hard to reach, but are effectively invisible.

While birth registration lags behind in sub-Saharan Africa, the case of South Africa is remarkable. During the era of Apartheid that separated and restricted millions of South Africans, the birth registration rate was only 25 per cent. Indeed, many black South Africans avoided registering their children for fear of willing including themselves into a system of government surveillance and oppression. Moreover, the civil registration system that did receive notifications of births and deaths was weak, fragmented and lacked the capacity to reach the hardest to reach in South African society. However, by the early 2000s, South Africa's birth registration rate was found to be near universal, according to the UNICEF. In fact, the years immediately following the end of the apartheid system in 1994 saw a rapid and steep improvement in birth registrations. Even more remarkable was the increasing speed at which children were registered, from late registrations of birth to within one year to, more recently, within thirty days.

Our team began researching this phenomenon in 2015, seeking the answers to many questions: Why did birth registration improve so dramatically in such a short period of time? What did the government and its bureaucracy do differently to account for this change? And what lessons can be learned and applied from the South African case to other parts of the world?