Cyril Ramaphosa (centre). File photo: REUTERS
Cyril Ramaphosa (centre). File photo: REUTERS

President Cyril Ramaphosa talks often of the need for a "social contract" to drive positive change in SA. The idea hinges on the conviction that society’s challenges are too great for unilateral efforts to make much of an impact, and so the government, business and civil society need to collaborate to generate solutions. There’s just one problem: like any "contract" that goes beyond just being a piece of paper, the social contract requires that parties trust one another. And this is not something we are very good at in SA.

There are mixed views on how the president’s first 100 days in office have gone, but it would be fair to say that the so-called Ramaphoria has subsided, and what looked like a "new dawn" may have been an optimistic forecast.

The recent news that the Gupta family members has won their case to have their luxury assets unfrozen, owing, apparently, to ineptitude at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), was particularly disturbing to hear. More generally, though, we should reflect on the state of trust in the country, how this impacts our hopes of a new dawn, and what we need to do to improve.

Unfortunately, the rosy idea of a new dawn is in stark juxtaposition with the reality of a country facing calamitous challenges socially, politically and economically. On the face of it, there seems little reason to trust the government’s ability to step up on executing its most basic function, namely, delivering services to citizens.

Revelations of state capture have brought to light just how much public trust (and public money) has been misused, in a grand project aimed at enriching the lifestyles of a few.

As a pressing example, the public healthcare system has become notorious, particularly in certain provinces, where stories about suffering and even death due to negligence are not uncommon.

Furthermore, revelations of state capture have brought to light just how much public trust (and public money) has been misused, in a grand project aimed at enriching the lifestyles of a few. Such abuse is simply not compatible with a credible social contract — the two cannot co-exist.

The private sector does not inspire much confidence either. We put our trust in organisations that we believe will have their stakeholders’ interests at heart, but we are confronted with stories of (among others) Steinhoff’s brazen misuse of funds, and KPMG’s failure of governance, the latter showing again that state capture is a networked, multi-sector phenomenon.

These and other scandals have eroded trust in both sectors, and it is hard as a society not to feel short-changed. Again, this is not conducive to the actualisation of a credible social contract.

On the positive side, there have been encouraging strides made in the public enterprises portfolio under the new leadership of Pravin Gordhan. The emphasis on capable oversight at the board level of state-owned entities is most welcome. We can also acknowledge that the emphasis on governance and ethical leadership in the King IV report on Corporate Governance for SA bodes well for decision-making processes in private companies.

In general, across public, private and parastatal contexts, more stringent oversight processes are required, in the hands of individuals who actively ask whether societal interests are being served by the decisions taken.

There are many social ills that fuel our mistrust as a society and, therefore, a great deal needs to take place to build public confidence through better transparency, continuous monitoring, accountability and repercussions for transgressors. Having a president that understands these fundamentals is critical, and we are certainly in a better position than we were a year ago. However, we need to believe that the individuals (in the public and private sectors) who handle our interests and provide services know what they are doing and do not abuse their positions.

There is only one way that this can happen, and it goes beyond nice-sounding phrases: it just takes time. Trust is a slow thing. Maybe a new dawn could indeed be on the horizon — but it is a distant horizon that will take committed efforts and a tangible demonstration of change to reach.

Madonsela is an associate subject matter expert at The Ethics Institute.