The South African Department of Home Affairs has begun rolling out security enhanced passports to new applicants from this week.
A facility in Pretoria which prints the new passports was officially opened last week by the minister of home affairs, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. Until now South African passports were produced in bulk overseas and personalised locally.
The new South African passport was due to be introduced in 2007, but was plagued with delays and has cost around R500m (£36m) to implement.
The initiative forms part of a Turnaround Programme aimed at improving customer service and stamping out forgery. The new passports bring South Africa into line with International Civil Aviation Organisation standards for technology and security, which were revamped following the 2001 terror attacks in New York.
The new passports have an embedded RFID chip which stores the owner's biometric information, including personal details, a high-resolution colour photograph and fingerprint information.
Several security features are designed to make it extremely difficult to forge, according to the government, principally the back page which now consists of seven layers of polycarbonate, each with an individual security feature.
Rather than placing a physical photo on the page covered in laminate, the passport holder's photo is laser-engraved on one of the polycarbonate layers, as is a copy of their biographical data.
The paper used for the other pages of the passport includes a watermark of Chief Albert Luthuli, and designs depicting the Big Five along with perforations making out the passport number. Other security features include interlocking stitching to prevent pages being removed or tampered with, and micro threads embedded in each page which store a form of uniquely identifiable 'DNA'.
Siobhan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Home Affairs, said that an online fingerprint verification system is used to confirm the identity of the applicant to cut down on the risk of identity fraud at the point of application. All the data is captured during the application, and a single data file is created and sent directly to the printers to limit the risk of internal fraud.
The launch of biometric passports in the UK has faced tough criticism amid claims that the security can be bypassed easily, especially as the same technology is set to be implemented into the proposed ID cards.
Existing South African passports will remain valid until they expire or run out of pages. Applicants will also now be able to track the progress of the passport process by phone, SMS or the department's web site.
McCarthy added that South Africa is in the process of moving away from the existing identity books to smartcards, similar to those being proposed for introduction in the UK, which will include some of the same security features.
South Africa is working with the UK and other countries on all matters of identity verification, including passport and border control, and should hopefully be signing a memorandum of understanding between South Africa and the UK around the topic.
In February, changes were introduced for South Africans entering the UK meaning that even those just visiting for a holiday would have to have a visa. Unfortunately, even with these new security features in place, McCarthy does not expect the UK to relax these new regulations any time soon.
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