President believes AI can root out corruption in ANC-led govt

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President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa believes technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) will play a pivotal role in stamping out corruption that has reared its ugly head in the ANC-led government.

On Sunday, Ramaphosa read the riot act to members of the ANC, in a letter saying “…there is a sense of anger and disillusionment at reports of corruption in our response to the coronavirus pandemic”.

He noted that in recent weeks, South Africans have heard stories of tenders for personal protective equipment that have been given to individuals associated with ANC leaders and of public servants flouting the law in issuing tenders.

The president then put on the table a raft of measures he believes will tackle the rampant corruption within the party.

Among these measures, he said the government needs to ensure transparency and accountability in procurement processes.

“We need to build on the ‘open tender’ processes employed in certain areas and make use of technology and artificial intelligence as a standard practice to tackle corruption across all of government,” he said.

He added that government should establish, in conjunction with civil society, an anti-corruption hotline reporting and online service specifically related to COVID-19 and beyond.

This platform should allow ordinary people to report corruption, Ramaphosa emphasised.

The president’s call on the use of technology and AI to fight corruption follows an opinion piece in the Sunday Times by the University of Johannesburg’s vice-chancellor, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, who suggested taking a similar approach in the fight against graft.

Marwala is also the deputy chair of the presidential commission on the fourth industrial revolution commission.

Ramaphosa chairs the 4IR commission, which he appointed to advise him, and government as a whole, on relevant policies, strategies and action plans to position SA as a smart, connected and competitive global player.

The professor cited a Chinese example where an anti-corruption AI system, Zero Trust, was used to monitor and evaluate the lifestyles of government officials.

In the same vein, Ramaphosa, in his letter, urges the conducting of lifestyle audits of senior public servants and leaders of public entities.

“In the end, we will not stop corruption within our ranks unless we deepen the ethical consciousness of our members and, particularly, our leaders,” said the president.

As far as using AI to fight corruption is concerned, organisations like the World Bank are working with Microsoft to “see the power and potential of artificial intelligence to digest huge and diverse data sets to detect patterns that hint at the possibility of corrupt behaviour”.

According to the World Bank, without effective public scrutiny, the risk of money being lost to corruption and misappropriation is vast.

The World Economic Forum also says with data analytics and AI, new technologies present governments with tremendous opportunities to improve public services, get better value for money and curb corruption.

Meanwhile, civic group the Organisation of Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) has responded to Ramaphosa’s corruption plea to the ANC.

OUTA says now is the time for the president to show the country how law enforcement will institute the often-promised lifestyle audits.

The organisation argues that open tenders do not translate to transparency. “It is only when the public has oversight of the participants and details within the tenders, along with the allocations before the money is spent, that we can consider government procurement to be transparent,” says Wayne Duvenage, OUTA’s CEO.

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