Technology is not a quick fix solution for corruption

Technology can be an aid in fighting corruption but it is not the ultimate fix for the corruption crisis in South Africa because corruption is a deeply rooted problem.

Melissa Tsungai Zisengwe
Civic Tech Innovation Network
6 min readDec 17, 2019


Our panellists: Dr Paul Kariuki, Melusi Ncala, Tara Davis, Lohan Spies & Gugu Nonjinge

In partnership with Corruption Watch, we recently hosted a Food for Thought breakfast session on how technology can prevent, detect and fight corruption in South Africa. Facilitated by Kavisha Pillay, head of stakeholder relations and campaigns at Corruption Watch. Our panellists included Tara Davis attorney at Corruption Watch, Melusi Ncala researcher for Corruption Watch, Lohan Spies founder of DIDx, Dr Paul Kariuki, Executive Director at Democracy Development Program and Gugu Nonjinge Communications Coordinator for Southern Africa.

South Africa has been constantly in world news, many times for all the wrong reasons. In the last ten years, it has become the epicentre of corruption scandals in both public and private sectors, from State capture, Steinhoff, KPMG, VBS Mutual Bank, to Bosasa and it seems we are not to be winning the war. According to Afrobarometer 64% of South Africans who participated in the Global Corruption Barometer Africa 2019 survey think that corruption has increased in the past 12 months.

“Although there have been a number of attempts in combating corruption at all spheres of life including a plethora of legislation, treasury rules and regulations and multiple anti-corruption agencies, South Africa continues to experience corruption in the public and private sections,” says Dr Kariuki.

He explains that there is high-level corruption happening in all sectors which are affecting the lives of ordinary people, the economy, development, government and business in South Africa. He adds that another problem with corruption is that the citizens are scared to come forward and report it for a number of reasons including retaliation, “we are normalising the culture of corruption by this mentality of see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing.”

Pillay remarks that when it comes to how the public reacts to corruption, technological innovations and access to information and access to information channels have impacted how the public reacts to corruption. “For example, we have witnessed some interesting innovations in South Africa especially designed for whistleblowing through encrypted communications. For instance, since Corruption Watch started in 2012 and it has received 28 000 whistleblowing reports, which shows that people are comfortable whistleblowing now because there are systems that protect their identity,” explains Pillay.

According to stats shared by Gugu Nonjinge despite fears of retaliation, 53% of African participants said citizens can make a difference and fight corruption while two-thirds (67%) of citizens fear retaliation if they report corruption. Afrobarometer’s survey found that there are barriers to anti-corruption efforts in Africa, however many people are ready and willing to take action. Afrobarometer further states that several basic requirements which are necessary for reducing the prevalence of corruption, these include ensuring people can safely report corruption when it is experienced, guaranteeing that punishments are fairly given, enabling nongovernmental organisations to operate freely, and empowering citizens to hold governments to account.

Tech solutions

Tara Davis shares that Corruption Watch is working on an open contracting for health project which aims to adopt open contracting practices, which will make data and documentation clearer and easier to analyse and ensure transparency in the health sector procedures.

She says corruption’s prevalence in South Africa and the seeming lack of accountability attached to perpetrators has arguably resulted in the public’s corruption-fatigue. “Corruption undermines the effectiveness of institutions, diminishes public trust & hinders the realisation of human rights.” Therefore she says Corruption Watch wants to create an open contracting system for the health sector in South Africa. “We want to create a system where there is competition and fairness.

“We want to create an open contracting data standard and use red flag monitoring and procurement laws to increase transparency and accountability because transparency alone won’t bring about accountability,” Davis.

Another tech solution from Corruption Watch is the Know Your Police Station project, they aim to develop an interactive online tool aimed at enhancing public participation and transparency in the South African Police Service. Melusi Ncala how they came up with the idea, “South Africa police service is an area we need to intervene because the relationship between police and the public is not good.”

Aforebarometer states that 47% of Africans think the police are the most widely corrupt officials, making it the most perceived corrupt group or institution involved in corruption. According to Corruption Watch’s 2019 Analysis of Corruption Trends Report the South African Police Service (SAPS) have the leading forms of corruption which are an abuse of power and bribery, which stand at 35.7% and 30.6% respectively.

The Know Your Police Station online tool will enable citizens to hold police officers accountable by granting them public access to over 1 100 police stations throughout the country and allow residents to rate the police stations based on their experiences as well as report incidents of corruption. “It will also allow citizens and communities to report corruption and police misconduct, identify areas of high corruption, educate the public of their rights and record the resources of police stations around the country such as budget and personal,” explains Ncala.

Corruption Watch hopes the interactive tool helps to reduce corruption in the policing sector by empowering communities to fight corruption and know their rights.

Lohan Spies the founder & CEO of DIDX, which deals with digital identity tools, introduced the idea of fighting and preventing corruption with digital identity. To begin with, Spies says we should start with solving the problem of data, the quality of data needs to move from poor quality data to rich data because the quality of data available directly affects how corruption takes place and how it is dealt with.

He suggests that as we move forward in the digital age we should start using self-sovereign identity — which is the digital movement that recognizes an individual should own and control their identity without the intervening administrative authorities and siloed identity — which works with three models: an organization issues to you (or allows you to create) a digital credential that you can use to access its service. “These two would allow the public and private sectors to create trust between them and the public, it will allow for protocol and verification process to avoid corruption,” explains Spies.

Spies adds that we should move towards a paperless world and start using smart forms with digital signatures and when people design these anti-corruption solutions they should design with the citizens because it enables real-time feedback from the people who will be actively using these tools.

“With corruption, we should stop trusting people and use the mathematics and seek other alternatives,” he shares.

Dr Kariuki agreed, saying, “We should look into using big data technology, data mining, fraud analytics and forensic tools to reduce opportunities for corruption. He adds that we should also look into investing in high-level tech such as artificial intelligence and digitising government public services through online services, transparency portals, and open data portals. However, technology is not a quick fix solution for corruption therefore we must be intentional in investing in technology in trying to solve our corruption crises,” Dr Kariuki.

“We must remain aware that technology can be used to mitigate, prevent and fight corruption however it also comes with new technological crimes and corruption that we may not be prepared for. Technology has some dark side, for example, misinformation, fake news, we have seen how fake news is disrupting democracy in some countries,” shares Pillay.

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Melissa Tsungai Zisengwe
Civic Tech Innovation Network

Program Project Officer at Civic Tech Innovation Network at Wits Governance School