Apparently as of 1 July, 2009 all mobile phones numbers need to be fully registered in South Africa. Prior to this, it was like many places in that you popped in for a SIM, topped it up and off you went with a number. Now, you need some form of identity and an address tied in with buying the number. You can read more about the general aspects of RICA, which stands for “Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act” (I’d hate to see how it’s written in Afrikaans) here.
As attendees to Highway Africa found out, even if you’re just a visitor and MTN is handing out free SIMs (which only cost $0.13 anyways) you need to somehow register the number before you can use it. While a passport works fine on the ID side of things, the address is a problem as their system will not accept foreign addresses. So, you just register the hotel’s address.
While picking up a SIM is still a much better deal than in Africa in general than in the–US ($25) or Europe (~$8)–regulations like these have always left me scratching my head. It is true that it’s the same deal to register in most European countries and most definitely the US with all of this is in the name of security, but it can very easily be sidestepped. Wouldn’t some would-be criminal there on a fake passport just give a fake address and (no way!) render the whole registration process useless? Or maybe mug somebody with a valid SIM and just use that? These laws are antiques, from the days before people moved as much as they do now, when we had much more permanent addresses, and no mobile electronics. Governments at some point need to realize that if they’re going to actually monitor security on mobiles, then they need to get ahead of it. Of course, given the fact that this requires people working for the government who innovate faster than those catering to the private sector then it explains why we’re stuck with things like RICA or the PATRIOT Act in the US.
One note on the instruction sheet about RICA they hand out with every phone that I found most remarkable was this to deal with the address issue:

If you live in an informal settlement you can provide a letter and/or affidavit from a school, church or retail store where you receive your post…

Again, it circumvents the whole thing they’re trying to achieve and has rendered this Act to be more of a pain than anything useful to the state. And according to the Wikipedia article, it’s quite possibly unconstitutional. Plus there’s the fact that it’s clear this was done in preparation for the 2010 World Cup, which is ludicrous as it’s going to kill anyone visiting from picking up a number and using the telecom providers while there. If a fan or journalist has to go to a special place to register a South African number or just deal with the price of roaming while in South Africa, I’m assuming they’ll choose the latter given how much they’re already spending on the flight, tickets, and everything else. Way to start killing World Cup profits early on SA regulators.
Who doesn't love mobile phone regulation