The government is considering compulsory fingerprinting of children - even as early as Grade 0.
Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula believes the drastic step might be necessary "in view of the disappearances of missing children, and those found murdered".
It is an issue that has created controversy elsewhere in the world, but the minister believes it could be a tool "to deal with some of the challenges in our society".
A similar proposal caused a stir in the United Kingdom earlier this year, when a leaked Home Office document showed that children aged 11 to 16 were to have their fingerprints taken and stored on a secret database.
The EU last year also considered drawing up rules that reportedly would have seen children as young as 6 subjected to compulsory fingerprinting, designed to prevent passport fraud and meet US visa requirements.
At the time, detractors and human rights groups warned that it might lead to juveniles being erroneously accused of crimes.
In her budget speech in parliament yesterday, Mapisa-Nqakula acknowledged that fingerprinting could also help fight crime committed by children.
The minister said she was seeking advice, including from the United Nations Children's Fund and other organisations, on whether schoolchildren should be fingerprinted.
Her department's departmental legal advisers were researching the matter, including its constitutionality.
She would also consult the education minister.
"I think that when finally, if we get the nod, and we introduce this, I don't believe there is a single parent who will be against it.
"If anything, I think we will mobilise society behind the department."
Mapisa-Nqakula said fingerprinting children when they first entered school might be the best route to follow, be it in Grade 0, R or 1.
"It's the one thing that does not change. So if you take fingerprints of a 7-year-old child, you can rest assured that, 20 years down the line, you will be able to read those fingerprints."
The department already has a data base of more than 29-million fingerprints, which is growing by an average of 12 000 a day, as people aged 16 and over apply for ID documents.
"Because a number of children have been killed and a number have gone missing, I feel it's important that in our database of fingerprints we should have theirs as well," the minister said.
Mapisa-Nqakula also noted that the move could assist in tackling children committing crime.
"It would also be good for the country, because indeed if we have children who are embarking on acts of crime, we should be able to track them down.
Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour had informed the cabinet that "children may not be as innocent as they look" and that some had murdered and raped.
"So it would also be useful for the SAPS to be able to track down those children who are criminals - obviously with the sole purpose of rehabilitating those children."
Lucy Jamieson, a senior advocacy co-ordinator of the Children's Institute at the University of Cape Town, is unconvinced.
"I'm in shock. Let's get our priorities right. Children aren't getting access to the vital necessities of life because they don't have birth certificates."
While crime was a political hot potato and there was pressure on the government to come up with creative solutions, "let's get the basics right first".
"They are scratching the surface of the identification of offenders rather than combating the causes of crime."
The issue of helping identify murdered children or finding missing children was a smokescreen, Jamieson added.
By Angela Quintal & Janine Stephen The Star