The latest edition of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer highlights an important dynamic in South Africa’s politics. As the name suggests, this is the question of trust, and what it means for us.

Trust is an important societal asset. It signifies confidence among people that they will conduct themselves predictably and honourably in their interactions with one another; this in turn makes cooperation possible, while limiting mutual suspicion and social stresses. Trust fosters and enhances ties within communities, and encourages productive, respectful involvement in political and economic endeavours. It also promotes economic growth by reducing transaction costs, thus making market interactions cheaper, faster, and smoother.

As Kenneth Newton, a British political scientist, put it: ‘Trust is arguably the main component of social capital, and social capital is a necessary condition of social integration, economic efficiency and democratic stability.’

Edelman – an international communications firm – has been putting out its Barometer since the turn of the century. It involves surveys of people in different countries, seeking to gauge how they view particular institutions and trends. For the latest edition, the polling was undertaken in November 2023 across a mixture of 28 developed and developing countries, including South Africa.

A small disclaimer is that the Barometer has been criticised, since it is produced by a commercial entity and it has tended to record large amounts of public trust for authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates: countries in which it has business interests. But since it reflects the outcome of opinion surveys, this may have less to do with bias on the part of the report’s compilers than with the information and political environment, or because these governments have a type of performance legitimacy. In other words, in a repressive environment, speaking too critically might be hazardous, or alternative narratives to the official line may be hard to access, or improving living conditions may predispose people to overlook democratic shortcomings.

For South Africa, though, these caveats seem unlikely to be relevant.

Distrustful society

And by Edelman’s reckoning, South Africa is a distrustful society. The Index plots a composite score out of 100 from the various questions posed. Anything below 50 falls into the ‘Distrust’ category; scores of between 50 and 59 are considered ‘Neutral’; anything higher is rated as ‘Trust’.

South Africa comes in with a score of 49, far from the bottom of the list: an unfortunate honour going jointly to Argentina, Japan and the United Kingdom.

But South Africa has a noteworthy mix of scores. On trust in government, it scores 29, second from the bottom after ever-frustrated Argentina – way below the world average of 50. The media don’t do too well either, with a score of 43, also against a world average of 50.

On the other hand, NGOs come out respectably in South Africa, scoring 61, a little above the average of 59. Business scores comparably, with 62, just behind the average of 63.

But the biggest repository of people’s trust tends to be their employer, with a score of 79, bang even with the global average.

It’s a revealing split: chronic distrust for the state, and a fairly robust degree of confidence in what is outside the state’s authority (with the partial exception of the media, though attitudes here probably mirror in a more restrained form the same suspicion of authority that results in damning evaluations of the government).

Range of institutions

Edelman’s findings are not unique. Last year, Afrobarometer conducted a national poll inquiring into a lot of things, including into feelings of trust towards a range of institutions. The questions were invariably phrased as ‘how much do you trust…’ followed by a six-item menu of responses – ‘not at all’, ‘just a little’, ‘somewhat’, ‘a lot’, ‘refused to answer’ and ‘don’t know’. Taking the first two of these (‘not at all’ and ‘just a little’) together as a measure of overall distrust, virtually all came up severely wanting.

The President, Parliament, the ANC and the Opposition, the police and the Electoral Commission are distrusted by between two thirds and three quarters of respondents. Around half of South Africans lack trust in the courts and religious leaders. The Department of Health doesn’t do too badly – all things considered – with only 37% distrusting it.

Curiously, the media comes out quite well, with only 31% distrusting state media like the SABC, and only 27% feeling distrust for private media. My intuition is that it might be simpler to damn ‘the media’, the muck-raking-fake-news-corporate-woke-media, in the abstract – as per the Edelman inquiry – than it is when the question focuses on outlets that one actually consults for information and entertainment, however imperfect they may be.

Meanwhile, around 61% of South Africans distrust other South Africans, 49% distrust their neighbours and 28% are sceptical of their relatives – though I guess many of us know a skiving uncle or wastrel second cousin who explains that last one.

But the message is clear. South Africa is not a society that trusts easily. It shouldn’t be much of a mystery why this is. Historically, cleavages of identity and politics kept us apart, though locked in what Jacob Dlamini has termed a ‘fatal intimacy’ – then and now, given the imperatives of managing an interdependent society.

Permanently precarious

More than that, fearful insecurity, unchecked crime, lawlessness (petty and large) and the general stress and insecurity of living in a society in which one’s life and livelihood can seem permanently precarious are hardly conducive to a sense of confidence in one’s peers. And of course, we’ve been failed and abused by those institutions that should provide leadership in integrity and ensure its survival. Too much of our public life is an effectively consequence-free zone.

The Speaker of the National Assembly – long a fixture among the political elite – stands accused of having taken bribes. That’s bad enough, but the concept that she gets to negotiate her arrest is farcical. And I’m probably not alone in tittering at the thought of the ANC having an ‘Integrity Committee’.

All of this adds up to a society in which the costs of interaction are viewed as steep and hazardous, and the costs of doing so – since there is a view that others are determined to take advantage – potentially steep. Paradoxically, this probably leads to a status quo, as it disinclines people to pursue the uncharted collective action that might prod some meaningful change. As Frans Cronjé has argued, disillusioned ANC voters simply don’t have confidence in the opposition to provide an alternative in which they are able to thrive, and fear they would lose the gains – even if it’s just a social grant – that they have received.

This unfortunately does open the way for hucksters to step in. A low-trust environment is one easily exploited by opportunists, with an early target being drawn on society’s institutions. In South Africa, these have already been compromised, so sadly, they’d likely be easy targets too.

Momentarily satisfying

The problem, of course, is that this path may be momentarily satisfying, but it is unlikely to build the solid institutions that a modern democracy depends on, and which can earn people’s trust. This is truly a road to perdition, compounding the damage already inflicted. Look at someone like Julius Malema or Jacob Zuma and imagine their world, to get a sense of where this ends up.

Sadly, since trust is a social and societal phenomenon, it does not lend itself to easy constitution or to simple repair when it is undermined. Society can suffer visibly from its absence, but there is no obvious formula for its creation.

The starting point, of course, would be that trust only makes sense where it is well founded. Trust, as the pat saying goes, is earned. Too much has been undermined in South Africa – through political capture, double standards, criminality or the flat toleration of mediocrity – for that to be a viable proposition right now. Trust in the country’s institutions needs to be built up by making them worthy of it. Unfortunately, the conditions for this, like honesty and efficiency, have frequently been distinctly second- or third-order priorities.

For a traumatised and unhappy society, I believe – and the IRR’s polling supports this – that people would respond well to excellence, irrespective of the complexion or political leanings of whoever is delivering it.

Needless to say, this is a non-starter without real and visible consequences for ineptitude or malevolence.

Trust would also require the inclusion and mutual ownership of societal endeavours. This may sound like politically-correct boilerplate, but it’s entirely true for communities where people see themselves as broad equals. Theoretically, much of South Africa’s governance system is committed to this (hence the stress on public participation), though the efficacy of this is uneven, to put it mildly. This doesn’t mean that people  always get what they want, but that there is confidence that one’s input and interests will be accorded proper and respectful consideration.

Trust is critical

In fact, trust is critical when one is denied one’s preferred outcome; confidence in the institutions and processes can at least allow those failing to get their way to accept the integrity of the process.

South Africa has too often defaulted either to stage management – as in the enormously deficient process around amending Section 25 of the Constitution – or to abdication, the latter particularly evident in new political parties who claim to have constructed platforms that reflect ‘what the people want’, a position that allows them to avoid responsibility.

Trust is conceptually most accessible to people who know one another: (remember, ‘only’ half of us distrust our neighbours), so the most logical place to start is at the local level. State-wise, though, this is where most of the rot has set in, so there are scant grounds for investing much trust here. Potholes and broken sewer pipes are for millions of South Africans a pungent reminder of why local authorities do not deserve their trust.

However, South Africa can point to a fairly robust tradition of community and activist life: getting together to deal with problems has long been a feature of life for poorer communities. The social organisation in informal settlements often surprises observers. This co-operation is increasingly becoming a necessity for the middle classes as they confront the decline of governance. (There is something both jarring and refreshing about well-heeled, multi-coloured suburbanites turning out to wave placards about water and power outages.)

To fill the abyss

Indeed, if anything positive came out of the 2021 riots – and don’t misunderstand, they underlined just how dire the state of the country is – it was that it demonstrated the capacity for communities and business networks to come together to fill the abyss left by a failing state. There were many examples of this, such as private security firms and groups of residents that took over street policing functions, and catering businesses that were able to secure food supplies for their clients where distribution chains broke down.

Incidentally, business has a rare opportunity here. Despite the hostility that much of South Africa’s political class feels towards it, most South Africans have a generally positive view of business. The high level of trust that Edelman found towards employers may well indicate a profound gratitude that millions of people in the country feel towards those who provide them with an income: no small issue in a country where a third of the workforce is unemployed. There is a recognition that business is one of the few functional spheres in South Africa. (Not perfect, and shysters like Markus Jooste did its reputation great damage.)

Business could do itself and the country a great service by articulating clearly and unapologetically a vision for a better country – one that is prudently governed and economically productive. Too often, it has tried to appeal quietly to unreceptive authorities; this is a losing strategy. It needs to shift to building direct relations and trust with ordinary people. This would be a significant path towards getting a consensus around economic growth, too.

For the moment though, we struggle on, watching over our shoulders, suspicious of those around us, and fearful of the future – and all with justification. But the bonds that do exist among communities and interest groups need to be nurtured as part of the long, tedious process of getting the country working. Indeed, creating a society that can draw on trust as an asset will be the work of decades if not generations. It is, however, an essential task for South Africa’s future.

[Image: Harish Sharma from Pixabay]

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.