Mandy Wiener: It’s all about trust, baby!

President Cyril Ramaphosa.  (GCIS)
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (GCIS)

The president hasn’t addressed the nation in nearly three weeks now - if we are doing this as part of a social compact, he needs to show us he’s part of it too and that the trust we’ve placed in him is still earned, writes Mandy Wiener. 

How much do you trust the government right now?

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced citizens across the globe into an increasingly precarious relationship with their leaders. In functioning democracies, citizens go to the polls and elect their office bearers.

In turn, these leaders carry a mandate to make decisions on behalf of that electorate.  

Now more than ever, those decisions are life or death.

A small minority has to make choices about when and how hard to lockdown a country, about who can work, who can travel, what can be sold and where, how you can exercise.

They decide how to curtail civil liberties and to what extent.  

In South Africa’s case, the National Coronavirus Command Council is the grouping of leaders that ostensibly makes these decisions.

This opaque structure apparently consists of 19 cabinet ministers, directors-general, the heads of the military and the police and other members.

It is they who determine what level lockdown we fall under and what that means practically.  

The constitutionality and composition of this NCCC has already been questioned by two senior advocates.

And as the country struggles to balance the curve of the economy against the curve of the virus, citizens are looking at this council with more scrutiny.  

President Ramaphosa’s entire approach to the fight against Covid-19 has been premised on a ‘social contract’ effected through goodwill with the people.

He asked that the population stay at home to bring down the rate of infections and most responded in good faith. The country trusted him to lead.  

According to an online poll conducted by Ipsos in early April, around 77% of those surveyed trusted the government as sources of information during the pandemic.

Around 85% of those polled said they trusted the news on television.

Another poll conducted before the pandemic properly hit, in early February, showed how little trust the country had in its elected officials, particularly Parliament and local municipalities.

Some would argue that we have a predisposition not to trust elected leaders in this country largely because of the devastation wrought by corruption and particularly state capture.  

Cyril Ramaphosa’s government may well have been suffering from the hangover of the Zuma years in that respect - after a decade of looting and self-enrichment, we have learnt to treat politicians with skepticism.

We're dubious of their intentions.  

But Ramaphosa’s early actions to declare a state of disaster, address the nation repeatedly, lockdown hard and early, clearly worked to raise the level of faith in him and his government.  

But now a series of events have occurred that appear to be undermining that trust.  

When Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Level 4 conditions, he told the country cigarettes could be sold.

But days later, when Minister of Cooperative Governance Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma backtracked, it created the impression that Ramaphosa had betrayed our trust.

The default position from many was a cynical one - that NDZ had overruled Ramaphosa and used her political clout to change the ruling unilaterally.  

Similarly, when the Department of International Relations had confirmed that several Qatar Airways repatriation flights could go ahead via Doha, and then those were cancelled apparently because of a Department of Public Works snafu, citizens felt betrayed.

They had been promised a path to return home and trusted the government that it would happen but were instead left stranded.  

For thousands of grant beneficiaries who line up each month to receive Sassa payments but find that these are delayed because of technical glitches or confusion around dates, this erodes the trust that they have placed in elected officials during this crisis.  

On the weekend, the Sunday Times front page claimed that government is keeping information on the virus under wraps to avoid panic.

This includes Covid-19 modelling data which projects thousands more infections and deaths, because officials are worried about the stigma and the alarm it could cause.  

This lack of transparency and a growing failure by the president to properly communicate and explain decisions taken around regulations, fuels distrust.

When the entire premise of lockdown is based on a social compact, which is grounded in trust, he can ill afford for this to happen.

The result is dissent and deliberate disregard for the rules which could manifest as a dangerous standoff with security forces.  

On the contrary, in this heavily polarised environment, there is an opposing school of thought which argues that this is middle class, privileged outrage and that we should have faith in government to lead us.

Decision makers are consulting widely, relying on science and navigating their way through uncharted territory and we should give them patience and time to make the best decisions on behalf of society.

The president has made it explicitly clear that the scientists are informing the decisions.  

Beyond trusting government, this dystopian scenario we find ourselves in is also forcing us to trust our fellow man more than ever before.

Because of the contagious nature of the virus, we have to have faith that the rest of the population is taking the threat as seriously as each of us is.

If the person next to me in the queue at the grocery store hasn’t washed his hands, isn’t wearing a mask or has been recklessly socialising, how can I trust him not to give me the virus?

How can I trust that my colleague sitting next to me in my office or sharing a vehicle with me, is being truthful about disclosing that a family member tested positive? 

Distinguished American communications researcher Professor Timothy R. Levine has written extensively about human deception.

He’s conducted the same simple experiment hundreds of times which involves asking students to do a trivia test, giving them the opportunity to cheat and then questioning whether they’re truthful about having done so or not.  

The result is the Truth-Default Theory.

Essentially, it suggests that we always default to believing someone is telling us the truth and that we can trust what they are saying. We presume others to be honest because we don’t think of deception as a possibility during communication or there’s little evidence to make us think we are being lied to.

Only when the truth presents a problem, do we consider that someone may be lying to us.  

At the outset, I absolutely defaulted to truth with the president and the NCCC.

I trusted them to lead us and to make the right decisions. I trusted the scientists and the explanations they gave us.

I still do. But many others may not. 

Our elected officials are going to have to ensure that they maintain that trust relationship and the goodwill.

This means they will have be transparent and communicate far better than what they are currently doing.

They have to let the scientists and economists share all the data and trust us with it in turn.

They have to stick to their word and carry through on commitments.

They have to deliver.

The president hasn’t addressed the nation in nearly three weeks now - if we are doing this as part of a social compact, he needs to show us he’s part of it too and that the trust we’ve placed in him is still earned.  

As he concluded in his letter to the nation on Monday, "Now, more than ever, it is upon the conduct of each that depends the fate of all."

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