Warning: Former public protector Thuli Madonsela says that the trust deficit in SA will continue to grow. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
Warning: Former public protector Thuli Madonsela says that the trust deficit in SA will continue to grow. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

With trust declining in three of SA’s four mainstream institutions — the government, the media and business — it is obvious that above-average levels of fear about corruption, immigration and the erosion of social values is affecting the way South Africans perceive their country.

Globally, the South African government is least trusted by its people, with only 15% of citizens affirming their trust in the government, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer.

This lack of faith in the system, combined with deep societal fears, explains the rise of populist movements such as #FeesMustFall, service delivery protests and candidates such as EFF leader Julius Malema and US President Donald Trump.

Malema and Trump, as well as other populist leaders in France, Italy and Mexico, have proven that appealing to the common man and issues that affect him outweigh political leadership attributes when it comes to getting elected. Despite its small size, the EFF has been a vocal opposition party that has succeeded in setting the political agenda on several occasions and has aligned itself with popular protest movements.

Widely respected former public protector Thuli Madonsela hit the nail on the head when she recently said the trust deficit in SA would continue to grow. She was referring to her state capture report, which contained serious findings on the influence of certain businessmen over top politicians in SA, including President Jacob Zuma, who fought the report’s release.

In the report, Madonsela suggested that an inquiry be set up to properly investigate state capture, but the president is challenging her findings in court.

With such a backdrop it was perhaps inevitable that the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer survey found that trust in the government declined from an already low 16% in 2016 to 15% in 2017. This was the lowest score out of 28 countries surveyed, with the global average coming in at 41%.

Edelman has been measuring trust in the government, business, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and the media since 2001. SA has been surveyed annually since 2014.

Citizens in half of the countries surveyed said the system was failing and two-thirds fall into the category of "distrusters" with less than 50% trust in the mainstream institutions.

In SA trust has declined, with 56% of respondents trusting business, 39% trusting the media and 15% trusting the government. NGOs provide the only stable sector, with trust levels remaining at 58%.

Declining trust in the main pillars of society has fuelled the belief that the system is no longer working. In such a climate, mild societal concerns expand into full-blown fears, which are now spurring uprisings and dramatic power transfers in key western markets.

The rise in popularity of the student protest movements and the political rhetoric of labour unions and politicians such as Malema are feeding the fears and insecurities of the man in the street, who is now looking to people on his own level whom he believes he can identify with, depend on and trust.

These low levels of trust in the government probably contributed to the ANC’s defeat in key municipalities in 2016. It also explains why people have more trust in Chapter 9 institutions such as the public protector’s office and the judiciary. Peers are now considered to be as credible as experts, indicating that facts matter less.

In SA, 70% of people consider "a person like me" to be on a par with technical and academic experts. Nearly two-thirds found financial analysts to be credible, 52% found CEOs to be credible and 20% found government officials to be credible.

In a year when "fake news" spread across the world, the media took the biggest knock and is now seen as politicised and unable to meet its
reporting obligations due to economic pressure.

While the media in some Southeast Asian countries gained trust, the majority of countries suffered a decline.

Globally, trust in the media is at 43%. In SA, trust in the media fell from 45% in 2016 to 39% in 2017. Traditional media saw a decline from 60% to 56% and it’s concerning that there was an increase in trust in search engines from 66% to 69%.

Worryingly, technology has allowed the creation of media echo chambers so that people can reinforce, rather than test, their opinions, and 59% of global respondents would rather believe a search engine than a human editor, 53% do not regularly listen to people or organisations they disagree with and respondents are nearly four times more likely to ignore information that supports a position they do not believe in.

The decline in credibility in CEOs, coupled with concerns about the loss of jobs due to globalisation, is more than just evidence of a worrying trend. It’s a harbinger of doom if business doesn’t heed the data and take the opportunity to lead

The decline in credibility in CEOs, coupled with concerns about the loss of jobs due to globalisation, is more than just evidence of a worrying trend. It’s a harbinger of doom if business doesn’t heed the data and take the opportunity to lead, particularly on issues that have societal significance.

CEO credibility in SA dropped sharply from 68% in 2016 to 52%, meaning CEOs are on the brink of distrust as a score below 50% is deemed to be generally distrustful. This decline could be blamed in part on news stories last year about CEOs earning huge bonuses. The growing income disparity is making it harder for people to empathise with the very rich or the very poor, which in turn is likely to affect trust.

Business leaders need to play a more active role in society. Some 78% of South African respondents agreed that a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the communities in which they operate. CEOs should also be transparent and give customers a platform to interact with them and their companies, as 69% of the general South African population said that listening to customers builds trust in a company.

Globally, the trust barometer found that investing in employees to make them your spokespeople is a good strategy for the future as people find the average employee to be more believable than official spokespeople.

In SA, employees are more trusted than CEOs to comment on financial earnings, business practice, treatment of employees and customers, and innovation efforts.

To effect change and build trust in the four main institutions, and particularly in business where opportunities exist to retain trust among those sceptical about the system, a fundamental shift is needed from the old model of For The People to a new model of With The People.

• Rittenberry is SA MD of Edelman PR, which produced the 17th annual trust barometer survey

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