South Africa: As Trust Falls, Business Expected to Lead

The Samuel Beckett quote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” perfectly captures the sentiment in South Africa, as the ruling ANC political party continually tries and fails to capture the trust of a country in which only 14 percent of the general population trust the government, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Yet amid tension in the ruling party, the Rand, South Africa’s currency, is at a two-and-a-half-year high, and despite the decreasing levels of trust in the four main institutions of government, business, media and NGOs, 77 percent of the general population believe that CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it. In addition, when asked which of the four institutions is the most likely to lead to a better future, 45 percent chose business, while only 11 percent chose government.

Edelman has been measuring trust in the four main institutions since 2001, and South Africa has been included in the survey every year since 2014. This year, the Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that 20 of the 28 markets surveyed now fall into the category of distrusters, with South Africa’s Trust Index decreasing four points and dropping to the third least-trusting market.

In South Africa, from 2017 to 2018 among the general population, trust in government dropped from 15 to 14 percent; in media from 39 to 35 percent; in business from 56 to 53 percent; and in NGOs from 58 to 50 percent.

The polarization of trust

While six markets recorded extreme increases in trust, an equal number, including South Africa, experienced extreme losses in trust in the four main institutions. Locally, there was an overall drop of 17 points, and in the United States, there was a dramatic decline of 37 points.

Political turmoil has undoubtedly had an impact on trust levels. Towards the end of 2017, the ANC elected a new business-savvy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to lead the governing party and he was scheduled to become the country’s president in 2019. However, current President Jacob Zuma was forced to resign amid corruption allegations and Ramaphosa has taken the reins of the country well ahead of schedule.

The election of Ramaphosa, a successful and respected businessman, has played a crucial part in the strengthening of the Rand  and in the rising of investor confidence. Despite the decrease in trust across the four main institutions, economic analysts are optimistic about the future of South Africa.

In search of truth

The Trust Barometer found that 69 percent of South Africans are worried about fake news being used as a weapon. Compounding this result is the discovery that people now define media as both content and platforms.

Trust in journalism and platforms declined by two and eight points respectively, and nearly half the population in South Africa consumes news less than once a week. People remain sceptical of news organizations; 61 percent believe news outlets are more concerned with attracting a big audience as opposed to reporting, and 59 percent believe they sacrifice accuracy to be the first to break a story.

Worryingly, 62 percent of the general population believe that the average person does not know how to tell good journalism from rumor, and 54 percent believe that it’s becoming harder to tell if news was produced by a respected media organization or not.

Business expected to lead

As credibility of CEOs and boards of directors rose 11- and 12-points each, it’s clear that people are looking to business to lead.

The Edelman Trust Barometer found that the most important expectations South Africans have of CEOs are that their company is trusted; that their business decisions reflect company values; that their products and services are high quality; and that they set high ethical standards.

The importance of business taking the lead was illustrated perfectly in 2017 by Magda Wierzycka, the exceedingly popular CEO of Sygnia, a successful fintech company with R184 billion ($15.4 billion USD) in assets under management and administration.

Wierzycka criticized local companies for doing business with a group of questionable businessmen, who have been accused of widescale fraud and corruption. As a result, she has become a respected anti-corruption spokesperson and is now widely quoted by local and international media. Needless to say, her company is doing better than ever and public trust in her has increased dramatically.

Globally, the Trust Barometer found that trust in business increased in 14 of the 28 markets surveyed, meaning there are opportunities for business to affect change and gain even higher levels of trust among the general population.

Jordan Rittenberry is managing director, Edelman South Africa.

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