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Research shows that trust-building is not a once-off activity; it is a continuous action-oriented exercise. This is not being done in 2023… and it is starting to show, writes Ido Lekota.

Think about someone you trust. Now think about the reasons why you trust that person. More than likely, they have a good “track record” of having been there for you when you needed them. In addition, you probably have an emotional bond with them that allows you to be vulnerable.

Psychologists aver there are two types of trusts. There is “trusting from the head”, which includes factors such as dependability and predictability. Then there is “trusting from the heart”, involving having mutual care and concern or an emotional bond. According to psychologists, most trusting relationships have both cognitive and affective aspects that often reinforce one another. They also contend that any reduction in the quality of any of these factors leads to a state of what they identify as a “trust deficit”.

At a political level, the advent of democracy has pushed political scientists into exploring ways of measuring and determining the level of much-needed trust between those elected to govern and those who have given them the power to govern. This is because of the importance of trust between those put in power “by the people for the people”.

This importance of trust in such a democracy arises from the fact that, as Greek Philosopher Aristotle once averred, “Every man, by nature, has an impulse toward a partnership with others”. At a political level, that partnership is, for example, based on an agreement between those in government and the governed. One of the instruments used to measure the level of trust—especially of those in government by the governed—is a trust barometer, a survey on trust in government by the governed. The most prominent is the Edelman Trust Barometer, which is the largest global survey and foremost authority on trust in government, business, media, and NGOs. It is conducted by global communication giant Edelman.

Explaining its mission in conducting the survey, Edelman writes: “We have studied trust for more than 20 years and believe that it is the ultimate currency in the relationship that all institutions—business, governments, NGOs, and media—build with their stakeholders.”

In this regard, what should be of interest to South Africa is the recently released 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer which reveals a major trust deficit in the relationship between those in government and the governed.

Some of the key findings of the survey include:

  • Out of the 28 participating countries in the survey, South Africa was one of the six deemed severely polarised, with 61% of South Africans agreeing the country is divided.
  • The majority of the people surveyed are plagued by personal anxieties and existential fears. 98% have fears of losing their jobs; 83% have fears about food shortage; and 82% are afraid the country is going to live with a perennial energy shortage forever.
  • Only 22% of those surveyed have trust in the government.
  • 67% believe the government is a source of misleading information.
  • Only 15% believe that leaders of government can be trusted “to do good” in whatever they are expected to do for the public.
  • An 11% drop in optimism among those surveyed when coming to the future of the country under the ANC-led government.
  • The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that 66% of those surveyed believe their families would be better off within five years. In the 2023 survey, 55% believe their families will be better off in five years.

The unfortunate reality is that those in government, through their (mis)behaviour, are undermining whatever trust the South African public had—especially post-1994 after a majority black party took over.

Very few South Africans and the global world can hardly forget the euphoria with which they welcomed the ANC-led newly elected government under the tutelage of one of the world’s anointed leaders, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

This is the euphoria that buoyed millions of voters for decades as they went to the polls to express their support for those who laid down their lives under the umbrella of the world’s oldest liberation movement.

Unfortunately, for the past 10 years, the wheels seem to have come off with those in government betraying the covenant of trust they had built with the governed. In doing so, they trampled on some of the most important principles of a relationship built on trust, including behavioural consistency, competence, respect, and shared cause. The latter is about whether those in government are there to help improve the quality of life for the governed or are there to build their political career.

Anyone who follows this country’s history post-1994 will have a clear picture of how the ANC-led government has betrayed the covenant of trust built post-1994 with the majority of South Africans.

That picture is made up of several incidents where, for example, members of the executive have arrogantly told South Africa that they are “spoiled and ungrateful” when they complain about the impact of loadshedding on their ordinary lives.

How can we forget the Zondo Commission Report which revealed how more than R57 billion in public funds were siphoned off from almost every arm of the state, with the alleged architects, the Gupta family, raking in at least R15.5 billion with the help of ANC leaders?

It was also during the inquiry that President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that ANC was “accused number one” in the whole state capture saga.

These are the incidents that have created the trust deficit captured in the Edelman Trust Barometer. There are many other incidents wherein by commission or omission the ANC-led government or its leaders have been involved in activities that impact the quality of life of the governed.

The inefficient manner in which the government handled the Thabo Bester saga by failing to inform the public about the convicted murderer and rapist’s brazen escape, thereby exposing (especially his former victims) and the public to imminent danger, is a case in point.

Also coming to mind is the recent settlement between technology company Ayo and Public Investment Corporation (PIC) in a deal in which the PIC will get paid around R600 million of its original R4.3 billion investment for 5% of the company shares, thus formalising the massive loss suffered by SA’s state pensioners during the five-year ordeal.

There are also reports of how the PIC is owed R200 billion by companies whose funding was in contravention of the institution’s funding governance. These include:

  • VBS Mutual Bank which in 2018 was declared insolvent and bankrupt and placed under curatorship—with South African citizens and taxpayers defrauded of roughly R2 billion.
  • In 2015, the PIC approved funding to the tune of R1.8 billion for Sakhumnotho Consortium Pty to buy shares from Tosago, a B-BEE shareholder in Total. A Commission of Inquiry then revealed the actual value of the shares was R1.7 billion and that the PIC committee that approved the transaction of R1.8 billion acted based on inadequate information—a move that was prejudicial to the institution.

The Public Investment Corporation SOC Limited (PIC) is an asset management firm wholly owned by the government of the Republic of South Africa, represented by the Minister of Finance. PIC’s clients are mostly public sector entities, which focus on the provision of social security. Amongst these are the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF), Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), Compensation Commissioner Fund (CC), Compensation Commissioner Pension Fund (CP), and Associated Institutions Pension Fund (AIPF).

Over and above generating financial returns for clients, through its impact-investing programme, the PIC seeks to generate social returns by investing in projects that ensure inclusive growth. Essentially, the PIC is one of the instruments for the government to achieve its mandate of ensuring a future quality of life for those in its employment—especially in their vulnerable state when they cannot provide for themselves.

Therefore, incidents such as the ones highlighted above go against the grain of the government’s capacity to execute that mandate, thereby exacerbating the level of mistrust alluded to in the Edelman Trust Barometer.

What the trust barometer tells us is that the governed have lost confidence in the competence and the probity of those in government, thereby reducing the overall trust in democratic legitimacy.

What this trust deficit means is that people are even more than before feeling that the country is not governed for them, but for a narrow segment of well-connected insiders who reap whatever gains are made regardless of the means.

This is the unfortunate reality that the majority of South Africans are confronted with, hence their loss of confidence in the ANC-led government as reflected in the party’s declining electoral support since 2004—peeking during the 2019 local government elections.

The Edelman Trust Barometer comes at a time when the ANC is making noises about its renewal to regain the confidence of the majority of South Africans, who previously put their trust in the party for decades. Unfortunately, there are already misgivings about the party’s commitment to that renewal given the tendency of its leadership to close rank whenever its shortcomings are publicly highlighted.

Maybe it is time the party heeds some advice from political pundits who suggest that “trust can be built and sustained by demonstrating two foundational attributes—delivering on the promises, all the time, with competence, and doing so with good intent”?

In this regard, competence refers to the ability to execute, to follow through on what one says one will do. Intent refers to the meaning behind a leader’s action: Taking action from a place of genuine empathy and true care for the wants and needs of those being led.

While this analysis is directed specifically at the ANC as the ruling party, it is important to note that the outcomes of the trust barometer do not apply exclusively to the ANC but to political parties in general. In this regard, all parties need to take heed of the results, especially given the forthcoming 2024 elections.

To that end, it is important for all political parties intending to participate in the elections should bear in mind how important political trust is—especially in times of crisis when citizens need reliable guidance from political leadership.

What any political leadership must also be cognizant of is that in countries where declines in trust have recently been most pronounced, evidence suggests that two interrelated factors have contributed significantly—namely economic insecurity and perceptions of poor or corrupt government performance.

Such research has also shown that providing economic security is a key role of the state and institutions and is the foundation of the social contract between government and citizens. Hence when economic insecurity becomes widespread, trust in those institutions is eroded.

In the same breath, research also reveals that trust-building is not a once-off activity. It is a continuous action-oriented exercise. Building trust often requires changing the status quo and being laser-focused on the constituency’s experience and perception.

Ido Lekota is a former Sowetan political editor and independent socio-political commentator.