Fear Gutted Trust in South Africa, but Opportunities Exist for Business to Lead

With trust declining among the general South African population in three of the four mainstream institutions of government, media and business, it is obvious that above-average levels of fear about corruption, immigration and the erosion of social values are having an impact on the way South Africans perceive their country. Globally, the South African government is least trusted by its people, with only 15 percent of citizens affirming their trust in government, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer.

This lack of faith in the system, combined with deep societal fears, explains the rise of populist movements such as #FeesMustFall, service delivery protests and populist candidates such as the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, and recently elected U.S. President, Donald Trump. Malema and Trump, as well as other populist leaders in France, Italy and Mexico, have proven that, when it comes to getting elected, appealing to the common man on issues that affect him outweigh political leadership attributes. Despite its comparatively small size, the EFF has been a vocal opposition party that has succeeded in setting the political agenda on several occasions and has aligned itself with popular protest movements.

Given the decline of trust in government, widely respected former South African Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, hit the nail on the head when she recently said that the trust deficit in South Africa will continue to grow.

She was referring to her state capture report, released last year, which contained serious findings on the influence certain businessmen had over top politicians in the country, including President Jacob Zuma, who fought the release of the report. In the report, Madonsela suggested that an inquiry be set up to properly investigate state capture, but the president is challenging her findings in court.

With such a backdrop, it was perhaps inevitable that the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer survey found that trust in the South African government declined from an already low 16 percent in 2016 to 15 percent in 2017. This was the lowest score out of 28 countries surveyed, with the global average coming in at 41 percent.

Edelman has been measuring trust in the four main institutions of government, business, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media since 2001. South Africa has been included in the survey every year since 2014.

Half of the countries surveyed said the system is failing, and two-thirds of them now fall into the category of “distrusters” with under 50 percent trust in the mainstream institutions, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. In South Africa, the Trust Barometer shows that trust had declined with 56 percent of respondents trusting in business, 39 percent trusting the media and 15 percent trusting government. NGOs provided the only stable sector, with trust levels remaining at 58 percent.

How populism fueled the fearful into action

Declining trust in the main pillars of society has fueled the belief that the system is no longer working, and in such a climate, mild societal concerns expand into full-blown fears, which are now spurring the uprisings and dramatic power transfers in key Western markets.

The rise in popularity of the student protest movements and the political rhetoric of labor unions and politicians such as Malema are feeding the fears and insecurities of the man in the street, who is now looking to people on his own level that he believes he can identify with, depend on and has greater trust in.

These low levels of trust in government likely contributed to the ANC’s defeat in several key municipalities last year. It also explains why people have more trust in Chapter 9 institutions such as the Public Protector’s office and the judiciary.

The echo chamber effect

Peers are now considered to be as credible as experts, indicating that facts matter less. In South Africa, 70 percent of people now consider “a person like me” to be on a par with technical and academic experts. Nearly two thirds found financial analysts to be credible, 52 percent found CEOs to be credible and only 20 percent found government officials to be credible.

In a year that saw the rise of “fake news” spreading across the world, media took the biggest knock and is now seen as politicized and unable to meet its reporting obligations due to economic pressure. Recently, a respected local newspaper was criticized by a freelance writer’s association and journalists for asking members of the public to write for the paper free of charge.

While some Southeast Asian countries gained trust in media, the majority of the countries experienced a decline. Globally, trust in media is at 43 percent. In South Africa, trust in media in general dropped from 45 percent in 2016 to 39 percent in 2017. Traditional media saw a decline from 60 percent in 2016 to 56 percent this year, and it’s concerning to note that there was an increase in trust in search engines from 66 percent in 2016 to 69 percent in 2017. This means that South Africans would rather search for news on Google than on accredited news websites.

Worryingly, technology has allowed the creation of media echo chambers so that a person can reinforce, rather than debate, their own opinions, and 59 percent of global respondents would rather believe a search engine than a human editor; 53 percent do not regularly listen to people or organizations they disagree with; and respondents are nearly four times more likely to ignore information that supports a position they do not believe in.

How business can leverage trust levels

The decline in credibility in CEOs, coupled with concerns about the loss of jobs due to globalization and jobs moving to cheaper markets such as China, is more than just evidence of a worrying trend. It is a harbinger of doom if business does not heed the data and take the opportunity to lead, particularly on issues that have societal significance.

CEO credibility in South Africa dropped sharply from 68 percent last year to 52 percent this year, which effectively means that CEOs are on the brink of distrust, as a score below 50 percent is deemed to be generally distrustful. This decline could be blamed, in part, on news stories last year about CEOs earning several million rands in bonuses with some, such as the former CEO of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Hlaudi Motsoeng, also giving themselves hefty million-rand salary increases. There seems to be a growing divide between rich and poor as the growing income disparity is making it harder for people to empathize with the very rich or the very poor, which in turn is likely to affect trust.

Business leaders need to play a more active role in society. Seventy-eight percent of South African respondents agreed that a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the communities in which they operate. CEOs should also be transparent and give customers a platform to interact with them and their companies as 69 percent of the general South African population said that listening to customers builds trust in a company.

Globally, the Trust Barometer found that investing in employees to make them your spokespeople is a good strategy for the future, as people find the average employee to be more believable than official spokespeople. In South Africa, employees are more trusted than CEOs to comment on financial earnings, business practice, treatment of employees and customers, and innovation efforts.

To affect change and build trust in the four main institutions, and particularly in business where opportunities exist to retain trust among those skeptical about the system, a fundamental shift is needed from the old model of For the People to a new model of With the People.

Jordan Rittenberry is managing director, Edelman South Africa.