To play their part in setting the nation back on the path to prosperity, SA’s institutions need to focus on rekindling trust and demonstrating a willingness to collaborate and take collective action.

According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, SA institutions have an average trust score of 48 out of 100. This means the country ranks lower than continental peers Kenya and Nigeria, and well below the global average of 56 points. While this trust score is an improvement from a year before, SA remains in the “distrust” category, and this lack of trust is simply not sustainable.

The country’s socioeconomic challenges have been worsened by the pandemic. With the expanded unemployment rate reaching 42.6% by the end of 2020, inequality continues to rise. Universal access to quality health care, education and transport services remains a distant goal.

But SA has a long track record of overcoming daunting obstacles, and it certainly has the capabilities required to chart a new course. To do so, major institutions — the government, business, civil society and the media — need to win over the public.

Encouragingly, the government made meaningful progress in rekindling trust in 2020 as it took drastic actions to curb the spread of the virus and assist the most vulnerable segments of society. Though the government remains firmly in the “distrust” category, we hope to see it building on last year’s gains as we set our sights beyond the pandemic.

Business and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), on the other hand, have crept upwards into the “trust” category, which could be explained by the fact that many organisations took unprecedented steps to protect employees and local communities at the onset of Covid-19. However, there remains much room for improvement.

While the slight gains across the board are encouraging, SA institutions and societal leaders must focus on shoring up trust. The Covid-19 vaccination programme provides one opportunity to do so. Partnerships between the government, the private sector and civil society organisations will be crucial in making the programme efficient and an overall success. The media has an important role to play in sharing reliable, objective information and keeping the public informed.

Working together

The success of the vaccination drive will ultimately depend largely on the levels of trust in all major institutions, with trust being a function of competence and ethics — or an institution’s ability to contribute meaningfully to the programme in a way that benefits society. All organisations will need to play their part, and this includes keeping their employees informed.

The government, business and NGOs must also work to address pervasive societal challenges. The latest trust barometer shows that job security, climate change and threats to personal freedoms are even greater concerns to the average South African than contracting Covid-19.

No institution can tackle these problems alone. The government and business must work closely together to reignite the economy, tackle the unemployment crisis and improve access to quality services.

While business is seen as highly competent, this segment has a long way to go to convince the public that it is committed to doing what is right. Companies can no longer afford to prioritise the interests of shareholders, and must demonstrate a broader purpose that includes other stakeholder groups.

The pandemic may well have nudged the private sector in the right direction. In the early days of the crisis, many companies put people before short-term profits as they provided customers with relief, donated towards pandemic response efforts and launched community initiatives. Business needs to build on this momentum. Over the long term, the private sector can only thrive if the society in which it operates is thriving too.

The government should continue to foster trust by rebuilding capacity and competencies, leveraging the deep resources of the private sector and civil society, and through accountability. Some progress has been made, but there is much more work to be done.

We believe an improvement in the country’s overall trust score through this uncertain period will be reflected in its development and prosperity indicators. Societies that are trusting of major institutions tend to be more prosperous than those that are not.

India and China are ranked number one and two respectively in terms of both their trust scores and growth projections for 2021 among major global economies.

A concerted effort by SA institutions to rekindle trust would set them up for long-term success and create a more prosperous environment for current and future generations.

• Crerar is MD of Edelman SA.


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