Issues of trust

2009-08-07 00:00

TODAY I will talk about trust. We have recently been reading the story of the errant financial broker, Mike Hale, who has disappeared with other people’s money — the second Maritzburger to have done so in a month. These men have abused the trust that others placed in them, although not as seriously as the arch fraudster, Bernard Madoff. Indeed, the global financial crisis came about because the trust that investors placed in their banks was shown to be misplaced as executives forgot the fundamental principle of banking, which is to take care of people’s money.

We cannot live happily without placing trust in others. We trust our teachers, we trust our business colleagues, we trust our family members and we trust our government to ensure that our taxes are spent in our collective interest. Des­pite the strong evidence that this trust is misplaced — many children are not taught properly and some are abused by their teachers, other children are sexually assaulted by their family members and the government’s use of tax- and ratepayers’ money isn’t characterised by the common good or prudence — we have no alternative in reality.

Among our challenges is the fact that there is little or no trust where there should be. The majority of people in South Africa do not trust the private sector. This is because the private sector generally (I acknowledge some notable exceptions) has presented too little evidence that it shares the principles of the Freedom Charter and the goals of the democratic government. The collusion of the apartheid era is not easily forgotten, des­pite the fact that business played a not-insignificant role in bringing about the change. The cynical view is that this was a res­ponse to market pressures and not one aligned to principle. In addition, since 1994 business has articulated dismissive res­ponses to reformed labour and other legislation, sometimes without fully understanding the context in which these laws have such paramount relevance.

In this season of strikes, the absence of trust between employer and employee is clearly visible. At the very heart of workers’ demands is the perception that they are being required to make sacrifices, while executives continue to enrich themselves. The greedy fat-cat image of business (and some government) executives implies selfish indifference to the plight of workers and the poor, and belies the counterargument of limited financial capacity.

The deployment of party loyalists into leadership positions reflects a lack of trust in public servants. This has the long-term effect of politicising the public service to the extent that its trust is compromised and its independence undermined. Given the propensity for personality clashes within the ruling party, there is a new dimen­sion in the matter of public servant loyalty. Senior officials lose track of exactly where their accountability lies, while no one is sure who’s stabbing them in the back. The true professional public servant is not affected by who provides political direction, but gets on and does the job of delivery.

I have no reason to doubt Bheki Cele’s abilities, but his app­ointment as the commissioner of police is surely an indication that senior police officers still cannot be trusted. (The notio­ns that the president’s motivation lies in the realm of political or personal influence, or that no senior officer is competent enough to occupy the top position, are not ones that I would like to entertain.) In the nineties, the appointment of a civilian made sense. The transformation of the police from a force to a service and its operational efficiency and effectiveness were priorities. Now, however, unless it must be inferred that the civilian leaders have failed, the SAPS needs to be headed by a professional policeman or woman. We would not send the army into battle behind a civilian politician, surely. The message implicit in the appointment is worrying: without a loyalist politician at the head, the SAPS can’t be relied upon to give effect to the policies of the government.

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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