How AI could help South Africa fight corruption.

In 2017, a report by the Public Affairs Research Institute argued that the power elite in South Africa had violated the Constitution and that the political project couldn’t be achieved by the legal framework at the time. In the years since, as the state capture tales have continued to unfold, it’s worth asking whether we could have uncovered the inner workings of this corrupt system quicker with artificial intelligence (AI).

We’re currently witnessing a fundamental shift in the global order – in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic but also because of the seismic changes caused by 4IR. The pandemic has been a useful yardstick to gauge our preparedness for this era. National lockdowns have forced people and companies to adopt new technologies in order to remain relevant, and AI is an integral part of this.


“Given the large swathes of data we currently have access to, there are potential solutions to many deep-seated issues, including corruption,” says Professor Tshilidzi Marwala,the UJ’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal.

In an extreme case, Zero Trust, an anti-corruption AI system in China, has been used to monitor and evaluate the lifestyles of government officials. It has access to more than 150 protected databases in central and local governments and, since 2012, has uncovered 8,721 government employees engaged in embezzlement, abuse of power, misuse of government resources and nepotism.

Zero Trust has come under fire for not explaining the process behind identifying corrupt individuals. And it still heavily relies on humans, which could make much of its work invalid if these people are also unscrupulous. Then, of course, there are the valid concerns around privacy.

Given the large swathes of data we currently have access to, there are potential solutions to many deep-seated issues, including corruption.”

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, UJ Vice-Chancellor  and Principal


But there are various ways AI can be deployed less intrusively. “We can use AI systems to analyse data from multiple sources and identify irregular activity associated with third parties, employees, and customers,” Professor Marwala explains. “AI is proficient in wading through emails, text messages and audio files. The technology is premised on its ability to recognise patterns and to identify anomalies. It also can predict future risks and identify fault lines.

”As questions around corruption related to the R500 billion the government allocated to ease the impact of Covid-19 mount, citizens are demanding greater transparency around the process for awarding government contracts. Lusanda Raphulu, a partner at law firm Bowmans, has proposed applying AI algorithms in supply chains, so introducing objectivity and consistency in the tender decision-making process and eliminating human bias.

“The time has come to harness the latent power of AI and put it to use to ensure ethical behaviour and integrity in practices that lend themselves to greed and inherently corrupt behaviour,” says Professor Marwala. “AI has the potential to be the custodian of social justice. We have the ability and opportunity in this country to use these capabilities to uncover corrupt practices. It is unclear why we do not put it to good use.”

This story has been adapted from an opinion piece written by Professor Marwala, which appeared in the Sunday Times on 16 August 2020.

Click here to visit Professor Marwala’s article