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The election is proving to be a bruising affair, with even the very rules of the game and credibility of responsible institutions being challenged.

It is being left to President Cyril Ramaphosa, his government and the governing party to continuously call upon the public to have faith in the integrity of the electoral process. Other parties — possibly preparing for ignominious defeat on May 29 — continue to erode the Electoral Commission’s credentials.

These parties need to be aware that the day after the elections we will still be here in a united, nonracial, democratic SA. And for our constitutional democracy to continue thriving for at least another three decades we will need to safeguard and ensure trust in all the institutions that have been at its foundation.

Trust is an assured reliance on the honesty, reliability and ethics of another being or organisation. The recently released Edelman 2024 trust barometer, covering 28 countries and 32,000 respondents, locates the challenges of trust in a global context. Trust in government, NGOs, media and business has risen slightly from 55% in 2023 to 56% in 2024, with the SA figures being 47% to 49%.

According to the report more than 60% of global respondents do not trust government, business leaders or journalists to tell the truth. Scientists are ranked at 74% for being trusted with information on innovations. There has been a surge in support for the statement “if business partners with government, I would trust it more with technology-led changes”, with SA registering just above the global average of 60% support for such a sentiment.

We will also have to address the tendency towards irrationality and obscurantism and away from evidence-based policies — most vividly seen in the debates about the Covid-19 vaccines. The Edelman report focuses on attitudes towards innovations and technologies, showing there is most enthusiasm for green energy, while attitudes towards artificial intelligence and gene-based medicine are evenly based and genetically modified organisms get least support.

Across the board, listening to the concerns of citizens is in the top three trust-building actions. The results of the recent Afrobarometer survey, carried out with the Institute of Justice & Reconciliation, convey similar results. While more than 60% of South Africans indicate trust in business leaders, 43% trust the media and only 29% trust government — and that is an improvement of 7% on previous surveys.

If we are interested in ensuring growing trust in the foundations of our democracy we need to address the obvious, such as improving the capacity of the state, fighting corruption, reducing inequality, creating employment and ensuring better communication between authorities and the citizenry.

Public broadcaster the SABC and the independent media enjoy a high level of trust, putting them in the 80% support bracket, while the public protector as well as the courts, traditional and religious leaders enjoy about 70% support.

The police are not trusted at all by 43%, marginally better than opposition parties, which are not trusted by 46%. Areas that require much attention by all parties include awareness and trust of the provincial premiers, electoral commission and parliament as a whole. 

There are many reasons why all political parties should promote trust among citizens and in the institutions of democracy. It increases the level of willingness to participate in elections, as well as civil society and community activities. It ensures that people have confidence in the judicial system, do not turn to vigilantism and violence to settle disputes, and comply with decisions of the courts. 

More trust in the security and revenue services results in more people willing to report transgressions, assist with investigations and show a higher level of compliance. Trust is regarded as the bedrock of social cohesion because as trust in public institutions rises citizens are more likely to share and develop a sense of community.

To quote a famous aphorism: respect is earned, honesty is appreciated, trust is gained, loyalty is returned.

• Abba Omar is director of operations at the Mapungubwe Institute.

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