As of midnight Thursday 26 March 2020, all non-essential businesses and government services in South Africa closed their doors to the public in an effort to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. Some Government departments, however, stopped operating long before the official lockdown. The Master’s Office in Cape Town, for example, closed its doors on Tuesday 17 March 2020 following the President’s announcement two days earlier banning, among other things, gatherings of more than 100 people. On any given day the Master’s Office in Cape Town has hundreds of people in its offices including its large staff complement and members of the public.
The closure of the Master’s Office and subsequent closure of the Deeds Office effectively means that property transactions grind to a halt during the 21-day lockdown. And while transferring property is probably very low down on the list of things South Africans, and our Government, are currently worrying about right now, it is concerning that an important sector for our economy cannot operate during this time (and who knows for how much longer).
The reason for this is quite simple. South Africa’s property transfer process is still predominantly paper-based. Any property transfer requires extensive documentation to be prepared and signed in person, collected, delivered and checked by several individuals including the real estate agent, buyer and seller, conveyancer, Deeds Office clerk, Chief Registrar, mail room worker and others. We have become very familiar with this process through our work at the Transaction Support Centre (TSC) and we are very thankful that this type of activity and movement of physical documents is not taking place during the current corona virus outbreak.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Many steps in the property transfer process can be conducted online by leveraging electronic forms, digital identities, biometrics, e-signatures, and smart contracts backed by new technologies such as the blockchain. In addition, several countries including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Singapore and New Zealand have shown that it is possible, and more efficient, to register land and property electronically.
The application of information and communication technologies to provide government services such as land and property registration is called e-government. The benefits of e-government are vast. According to the United Nations (UN), e-government improves public services, citizen engagement, as well as the transparency and accountability of authorities. Mostly notably, given the current situation the world finds itself in, e-government also strengthens the resilience and sustainability of societies. As the UN states –
“Governments have the critical responsibility to build resilience and assist those most affected by possible shocks in pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals implementation. They must find ways to anticipate disasters and lower their impact. They themselves must prepare for risks of various kinds and adapt to and reduce their own vulnerability and exposure. They need to manage emergency responses, seamlessly perform essential functions and deliver services, and recover rapidly from crises while incorporating lessons learned into their institutions and public administrations.”.
Moving government services away from paper-based systems is a critical first step towards making a country’s public administration more resilient to shocks such as the current 21-day lockdown. One just has to look at how Estonia completely rebuilt its public administration after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 to understand the benefits of a digital-first government strategy (see Anna Piperal, E-Estonia Ambassador, Ted Talk below).