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President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Daily Sun)
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Poor governance, corruption and a general lack of candour among those in the highest echelons of society are among the factors which have created a propitious environment for the erosion of trust, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.
Then-deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa gave a great speech about the role of the media at the 2014 annual Nat Nakasa dinner, hosted by the South African National Editors' Forum. He encouraged the media to tell the South African story from all angles – the good, exciting, bad and ugly.
"Delight us, amuse us, educate us, challenge us! And occasionally, just occasionally, annoy us, for we do not pretend to be saints and to know it all," he urged.
Well, five years later, one can argue that the kind of publicity he has received recently as president over the CR17 fundraising campaign, came in the annoyance package he had ordered.
He further said: "Confront us about service delivery failures. Condemn us when children die of contaminated water. Expose us when we abuse state resources." Here, Ramaphosa was saying that which the media has been good at for years, at times sounding like a broken record.
The story of the abuse of state resources is synonymous with the Bosasa and Gupta corruption empires. These empires were "authorised" by officials who simply ignored media revelations about constitutional violations and criminal conduct.
Ramaphosa had another request: "Remind us of our responsibility to lead in an inclusive manner in order to address the deficit of trust and confidence that permeate in our society today." This is at the heart of what the country is going through right now – a runaway trust and confidence deficit.
Five years after Ramaphosa made this remark, one is tempted to say: "You can say that again, Sir."
I guess Ramaphosa knew that he was preaching to the converted, but he wanted it known he had diagnostic perspective of the challenges. Poor governance, corruption and a general lack of candour among those in the highest echelons of society are among the factors that have created a propitious environment for the erosion of trust.
The state enjoys the lowest levels of trust. To be sure, a sceptical citizenry is good for democracy. Overly trusting citizens can breed arrogant leadership. The whole idea of being in leadership in a democratic system is to be consistently uncomfortable because people don't trust you and they are entitled to show it.
The only way to mitigate, not to eliminate, the lack of trust is for leaders to consistently seek to prove their sincerity. For this to work, we need reciprocity in trust building among all stakeholders: leaders of state institutions, business leaders, labour leaders, social activists and all citizens.
Scepticism must never reach the threshold of dysfunction, where the legitimacy of state institutions is questioned. Ramaphosa and his administration have a mammoth task: to quickly arrest the rising levels of mistrust and lack of confidence in state institutions. It's not enough to simply say: "Trust us." The government has announced several policy proposals recently: among others, the process to amend the Constitution to allow expropriation of land without compensation and the National Health Insurance Bill, supposedly a cure to our ailing public health system.
These might have been borne of a genuine desire to solve genuine problems. The public's reaction, however, has been that of questioning the motives of the government without considering the merits of the proposal.
This is not to say all criticism is meritless. But the negativity is overwhelming.
Many South Africans believe that these initiatives are nothing but tricks of corrupt elites to take us to Zimbabwe and to destroy the private health system in the same way they have the public sphere.
The erosion of trust seems to run deep. The private sector is not investing as it should because of what it normally refers to as policy uncertainty, a euphemism for: "We don't trust what the government will do tomorrow, so we'll not risk our capital."
Among the areas where lack of trust is almost irretrievable, and hard work is required to restore it, is the management of public money and state-owned enterprises. Notwithstanding all the initiatives that the government has announced – changes in management and ongoing investigations – public conversations suggest more work has to be done to restore trust.
In his book Trust: Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, political scientist Francis Fukuyama writes that one of the most important lessons we can learn from an examination of economic life is that a nation's wellbeing, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single pervasive cultural characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society.
Which brings me to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni's policy discussion document on economic transformation, inclusive growth and competitiveness. It contains many good ideas, including addressing the issue of a lack of policy certainty.
Notable in the document is the absence of negatively labelling any of the stakeholders. The document is realistic about creating economic opportunities for small business without suggesting that big economic players are evil. The reality is that South Africa cannot afford to lose any economic player, big or small.
Much of the document's ideas would still depend on trusted state agencies, including newly proposed regulatory bodies, to implement.
Yet, it is short on how the increasing mistrust on the state should be addressed and thus begin to engender trust across all sectors. We need to start there urgently.
Here is a reminder to President Ramaphosa as per his request: You are urgently reminded to lead in a way that solves the pervasive trust deficit in society. Please move with speed.
- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.
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