Apartheid-era identity numbers in South Africa

The US has social security numbers and the UK has national insurance numbers, but in Sweden and South Africa EVERYTHING runs on national identity numbers. You cannot do anything without one.

In Sweden you need a civic registration number to do anything (visit a doctor, do your banking, rent an apartment, study, work – ANYTHING!). Without one you are completely outside the system. You are unable to visit a doctor, open a bank account, apply for a job and so on.

A Swedish national identity would look like this


and is constituted as follows

  • date of birth (in this case 21 June 1963)
  • 2 numbers which previously denoted place of birth but which are now random (in this case 49)
  • 1 number gender (odd for a man, even for a woman)
  • 1 control number.

You are assigned this number when you are born or when you receive permission to study, work or live in Sweden. Swedes are really proud of this system as it allows every single system to function well. You have to carry identification with you at all times in order to have access to any system. You show your identification and voila! any system can see you.

What many people do not know is that South Africa used almost exactly the same identity number system to enforce apartheid, and that it was introduced at more or less the same time as the Swedish system.  This was done by adding two digits to the end of the number series to denote race and citizenship. This was the foundation of the entire apartheid (‘apartness’ system) and allowed the enforcement of the Group Areas Act (keeping races living apart), the Immorality Act (preventing people from different races from having sex) and the Pass Laws Act (permits in the ‘passbook’ showed where black people were allowed to be, often contained behavioural evaluation, and were the reason for many arrests. These passbooks were the reason for the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960)

All South Africans had to carry identity books with them, which were checked when you entered a shop/hotel/hospital/bus etc. If you were Japanese you were white but if you were Chinese you were not. When issuing identity numbers, if someone was unable to determine your race, the pencil test would be employed. A pencil would be pushed into your hair. If it fell out you were white, if it stayed in you were not. If you had a relationship with someone from another race, your entire family would be reclassified to the darker colour. From the early 1980s Black South African people were not actually citizens of South Africa. They were stripped of their South African citizenship and made to live in reserves (aka ‘homelands’) until the law was repealed. What makes it all so shocking is that white people make up only 8% of the South African population, yet they imposed this horrendous system on 92% of of the population.

Under the 1950 Population Registration Act, each inhabitant of South Africa was classified into one of several different race groups, of which White was one. Many criteria, both physical (e.g. examination of head and body hair) and social (e.g. eating and drinking habits, familiarity with Afrikaans or a European language) were used when the board decided to classify someone as white or coloured.  This was  extended to all those considered the children of two White persons, regardless of appearance. The Act was repealed on 17 June 1991.

My father used to work in a paper factory and part of his job was analysing clay samples which he collected from quarries and surrounding land. He had olive skin and would go really dark in the sun, particularly as he worked outside so much. In order to prove his race he had to pull down his trousers and show his bottom (the only place that would not have been tan). This must have been so hard for a man like my father who was very very conservative. I never saw him without clothes on but he often had to pull his pants down in front of me in order to enter the white entrance in a shop, or sit down at a café. How hard that must have been for him.

A South African apartheid era identity number would have looked like this


and was constituted as follows

  • date of birth (in this case 21 June 1963)
  • gender (0 – 4999 for female, 5000 – 9999 for male)
  • citizenship (0 for South African, 1 for right of residence)
  • race (there were 8 races)
  • control number

You had to carry a so-called Book of Life with you from when you were 16 years old. The large blue one above is an older one (my father’s) and contains the following:

  • birth certificate
  • photos taken of you as you aged and changed
  • driver’s licence
  • endorsements on driver’s licence
  • allergies
  • vaccinations and immunisations
  • blood group
  • medical information
  • illnesses and disorders
  • marriage certificates
  • details of divorce
  • gun licences
  • voting record
  • postal address
  • residential address
  • death certificate

The smaller green one above (belonging to me) is a new one and contains:

  • birth details (no racial information in the identity number)
  • driver’s licence (cards are now used)
  • gun licences
  • postal address
  • residential address

There is no longer any racial element to the identity number. The last numbers still exist, but are now without meaning. I was issued three new last numbers when apartheid was abolished.

If you wished to be in another area from that in which you were allowed to be, you had to apply for permission, as shown below.

There was a referendum in South Africa in 1992 where white people voted to abolish apartheid. Luckily almost 70% voted yes.

This is why I get so angry when people say ‘it’s like apartheid’. Very few people today know what apartheid actually was and how deeply it was constitutionalised. Institutionalised racism was used to systematically keep races apart and it stripped black people of citizenship of their own country. Like the Holocaust, we must never EVER forget it so it will never happen again.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

19 thoughts

  1. I was one of the South Africans to vote YES to handing the country over to the ANC, so in no way accept the former system as it was very unjust. I am bemused, however, that you have a lot to say, whilst living in Sweden. Why not come stay here and experience the crime, corruption and destruction since 1994.

    1. I am actually in South Africa at the moment because my entire family, including my mother lives here, in the poorest province. I spend a lot of time here, though covid meant we were unable to travel in 2020 and 2021. I am perfectly aware of the situation, but thank you for your opinion. I really appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment.

  2. Hi Janet,

    Please help i need guidance on how to proceed.

    My mums greed ID book was stolen with the jewelry .
    I have the Black ID need to round up the estate.

    Your Thoughts.


    1. Her black ID book should have her old ID number and place of birth etc. You could probably take that to Home Affairs with the police report of the theft, and have a temporary ID for her issued to close the estate. At the very least, Home Affairs should be able to tell you how to proceed. Good luck!

  3. We have tried to locate my grandfathers details who passed in the 70’s. home affairs apparently have no system to use the old ID system as they are adamant they all have a new 13 digit number,

    1. That does not make any sense, surely? Did they issue every single dead person with a new identity number? How on earth are their families supposed to know what it is? I certainly was not notified in the case of my parents.

  4. Totally a nightmare to get a death certificate for my late grandfather who passed on during the late 70’s in south africa…..only document I have is the dompass card with 9 digit and K number at the end ( classified as coloured during the apartheid era ). We as the great grandchildren are unable to transfer his estate as no will was drawn up prior to his death.

  5. my Granny was 331/544219 ? She was born in Germany This ID was used on her Death, she lived in SWA and then SA – How do I find her “New” SA Number I have tried Home Affairs but she died in JHB 16 May 1965 So where are the records kept?

    1. New SA identity numbers only came in the 1990s, so if your granny died in 1965 she would never have been issued a new one. All her records will be under her original number and probably held at Home Affairs.

  6. Hi there. I have been trying to find my father. I have never met him and I am 57 years old. All I have is his old SA ID nr. How do I go about getting the latest format? I got the old ID nr from the marriage certificate with my mother

    1. Do you know if he is still alive? You could contact Home Affairs with his old number and ask them, although they may not be allowed to release those details.

  7. Hello Janet ; I’m trying to find my father’s old Book of Life number (old ID number prior to 1986) but don’t know where to search for it. Can you help?

  8. Hi, you say black people were not South African citizens which is true. But then you say that were stripped of their citizenship. So at what point were they actually citizens? My research going far back suggests that black people were once only in the eastern part of South Africa after they won land following 7 wars against the English… I’d like to hear your views on this..

  9. To see it in writing like that is still quite a shock that they would take it to such a detail about the activities permitted. When did you leave S.A.?

  10. The cold facts of the number and its meaning in South Africa tells such a tale – just the facts and so hard. Thank you for sharing this, Janet. The more we all know, the more it may not happen again. Lest we forget.

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