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  • Biometric State: the global politics of identification and surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the present by Keith Breckenridge
  • Jeremy Seekings
KEITH BRECKENRIDGE, Biometric State: the global politics of identification and surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (hb £69.99 – 978 1 107 07784 3). 2014, xi + 252 pp.

This is an innovative and exciting contribution to the study of the ‘modern’ state both in South Africa and globally. Breckenridge’s focus is on the technologies of identification and surveillance, and thus contributes to the growing literature on how the South African state sought to control its population. He demonstrates that South African state building cannot be understood without attention to the global context, and that South Africa in turn served as a ‘global stage’ on which the development of biometric systems for population registration had repercussions elsewhere.

Breckenridge builds on the work of scholars of other parts of the world (in the past and present) on state bureaucracies’ efforts to register populations – their [End Page 600] births, marriages and deaths – using documentary technologies of identification (passports, identity cards, birth certificates, driving licences). Breckenridge’s concern is not with documentation per se, however, but with biometric registration: that is, technologies that allow for machines to identify people through fingerprinting (or, very recently, iris and voice recognition). The ‘biometric state’ is ‘a state that is organised around technologies and architectures of identification that are very different – and which function politically very differently – from the older forms of written identification that have produced the modern state’ (p. 8).

Biometric State begins in the early 1850s, when the inventor of fingerprinting, Francis Galton, toured Southern Africa, developing the racial biology that informed both racial segregation and, Breckenridge suggests, fingerprinting itself. Fingerprinting, Galton wrote, would enable (superior) Europeans to distinguish between ‘individual members of the swarms of dark- and yellow-skinned races’ (quoted on p. 63). The development of a system of unique personal identifiers was achieved not by Galton himself, but by the Commissioner of Police in Bengal, Edward Henry. Fingerprinting was rapidly adopted by the Indian bureaucracy. Chapter 2 examines the consequences of Henry being seconded to the Witwatersrand in 1900–01 to create a new police force. Henry agreed with mine-owners that policing the Witwatersrand required a centralized registration system that allowed migrant labourers to be identified. The ‘technology of fingerprint identification’ was thus ‘set … into the foundations of the South African state’ (p. 76). In practice, universal fingerprinting proved too expensive at the time. Only the fingerprints of criminals and Chinese indentured labourers were fully catalogued. The state then turned to the Indian population of South Africa, prompting widespread resistance led by Gandhi. In Chapter 3, Breckenridge argues that it was his opposition to fingerprinting that led Gandhi to reject Western modernity. Chapter 4 turns to the failure of the state to register African people in the first half of the century; Breckenridge explains this in terms not of fiscal parsimony, but rather of the division within the state between advocates of fingerprinting (concerned with the regulation of labour and policing) and champions of the registration of births and deaths (concerned primarily with public health).

The compulsory fingerprinting of the male African population and centralized record keeping were finally undertaken in the 1950s, on Verwoerd’s orders (see Chapter 5). An individual’s residential, employment and even tax history would be recorded in a file matched to an identity document through fingerprinting. While apartheid is often viewed through the lens of effective, totalitarian surveillance and regulation, Breckenridge shows that the logistical challenge in fact proved too immense. Verwoerd’s sudden embrace in the late 1950s of the idea of homeland independence may have been the result of the failure of his dream of an efficient, centralized system of surveillance, in that responsibility for the control of the African population would instead be decentralized to African subordinates. Chapter 6 takes the story through to the 2000s. The chapter begins with the non-biometric system of identification and registration introduced under the Population Registration Act, and partly computerized in the 1970s. In the 1980s, amidst heightened security anxieties, the government decided to fingerprint...


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pp. 600-602
Launched on MUSE
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