South Africa


Government faces an uphill battle to regain public trust

Government faces an uphill battle to regain public trust
David Mabuza shares a light-hearted moment with President Cyril Ramaphosa after Mabuza was sworn in as a member of parliament Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, 28 May 2019, at the Presidential Guesthouse in Pretoria. Picture: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

A tough situation requires decisive action, and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s SONA speech spelt out some of these measures. But HSRC research suggests that Ramaphosa’s government has much work to do in order to convince South Africans of its ability to turn the tide.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was confronted with a country facing numerous pressing challenges when he delivered his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 13 February. These include struggling state-owned enterprises, poor economic performance and outlook, high levels of corruption, regular disruptive and violent protest action, and unacceptably high levels of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

This unfavourable situation has resulted in widespread public protest action across South Africa. Protest action is not new and scholars have argued that these protests are a result of institutional failure to provide satisfactory basic services, while others maintain that citizen satisfaction is also a function of expectations of government’s performance. The government must, therefore, address the concerns of citizens to prevent escalating protest action and maintain and restore the trust of citizens in government and our constitutional democracy.

Public opinion on the real state of the nation

For the present analysis, we consider selected indicators that assess citizens’ satisfaction – with democracy, with the general economic situation in South Africa, and with government-provided services. The survey also assessed citizens’ trust in national government and Parliament as well as the percentage of respondents that identify corruption as one of the top three challenges facing the country. We conclude by looking at attitudes towards energy preferences. 

We base our assessment in this analysis on views of the South African population captured in the South African Social Attitude Survey (SASAS) series. The survey series has been conducted by the HSRC on an annual basis since 2003, and is nationally representative of the adult population aged 16 years or older living in a private residence.

Satisfaction with democracy: There is growing discontent with the functioning of democracy in South Africa, despite an improvement following the transition to the Ramaphosa administration. In 2004, 63% of South Africans indicated they were satisfied with democracy. By 2017, the level of satisfaction had fallen significantly to a mere 23%, with a slight recovery to 35% in the survey round that took place between late 2018 and early 2019.

Satisfaction with the country’s economic situation: Barely a fifth of South Africans are content with the country’s economic performance. A declining trend was evident between 2010 (36% satisfied) and 2017 (16% satisfied), although a modest uptick was evident in 2018/19 (22% satisfied).

Trust in core political institutions. There has been declining confidence in national government and Parliament since the mid-2000s. There was a slight improvement between the 2017 and 2018/19 survey rounds, but trust nonetheless remains circumscribed. Trust in national government decreased from 67% in 2004 to a low of 28% in 2017, while trust in Parliament dropped from 63% to 25% over the same period.

Question phrasing: “To what extent do you trust or distrust the following institutions in South Africa at present?” (% strongly trust/trust) Source: HSRC SASAS 2003-2018/19.

Satisfaction with government-provided services: The survey results reflect robust satisfaction with social grant provision (consistently around 70%), and education to a lesser degree (63% in 2018/19). However, declining satisfaction trends are evident for electricity provision (from 72% in 2016 to 54% in 2018/19), water and sanitation (56% in 2015; 47% in 2018/19), and refuse removal (55% in 2016; 44% in 2018/19). There is persistently broad-based discontent with job creation (satisfaction levels on average below 10%) and crime reduction (on average around 20%), together with critical views on the provision of affordable housing (from a record high of 40% in 2016 to 32% in 2018/19).

The enduring triple bind

Unemployment, inequality and poverty are among the dominant challenges facing the government in its quest to create a better life for all. The latest estimate from Statistics South Africa shows that the unemployment rate reached an all-time high of 29.1% in September 2019. It is unlikely that the economy will grow fast enough to create the number of jobs required to reduce unemployment. This is indeed a disconcerting prospect for the many young South Africans entering the labour market in search of decent employment to improve their lives. Youth unemployment (aged 15 to 24) stood at 32% in the last quarter of 2019, which is an increase of 0.9% from 31.1% in the final quarter of 2018. 

The scale of the youth unemployment challenge is extremely disconcerting, even though the president in 2018 established job creation for young South Africans as a central priority for national policy. Growing numbers of retrenchments – such as those at Telkom, and possibly SAA – will further contribute to escalating unemployment rates.

South Africa continues to rank as one of the most unequal countries in the world. According to Stats SA, the Gini coefficient of household per capita income is well above 0.6. Wealth inequality in South Africa is also incredibly high, with black African households on average possessing only 4% of the wealth held by an average white household, while an average coloured household possesses about 6% of the wealth held by white households.

Large proportions of the population are still characterised by high levels of poverty. In 2015 almost half of the population could be considered chronically poor based on the national (upper-bound) poverty line of R992 per person per month in 2015 prices. There remains a close association between race and poverty, with 47% of households headed by black Africans classified as poor (living below the lower-bound poverty line) in 2015, compared to 23% for coloured-headed households, around 1% for Indian-headed households, and less than 1% among white-headed households.

The economic fightback

In recognition of these pressing realities, Ramaphosa acknowledged in his 2020 SONA address that, “We are confronted by [a] crisis of youth unemployment. Of the 1.2 million young people who enter the labour market each year, approximately two-thirds remain outside of employment, education and training. More than half of all young people are unemployed. This is a crisis. We need to make this country work for young people, so that they can work for our country.”

His government proposed a solution to this crisis that “must be two-pronged – we must all create opportunities for youth employment and self-employment [entrepreneurship]. On youth employment, as from today, we begin the implementation of the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention – six priority actions over the next five years to reduce youth unemployment.” 

The primary objective of this intervention is to “creat[e] pathways for young people into the economy”. The six actions include “providing shorter, more flexible courses in specific skills that employers in fast-growing sectors need”. Ramaphosa emphasised the intention to rapidly build skills and capacities, to enable “practical work experience” and entrepreneurship, as well as paid work opportunities in the Presidential Youth Service Programme that would contribute to “nation-building”. In addition, nine new TVET colleges would be built and Ekurhuleni Metro would be home to a new “University of Science and Innovation”.

Meeting earlier in the day with various youth formations, the president said that government’s “first priority is to create a National Pathway Management Framework” that would include a “basic package of support and work readiness training and to be matched to employment and other economic opportunities” (SA News 13 February 2020).

His speech recognised not just the need to do different things, but also the urgent need to do things differently. He urged everyone to “frankly admit that the government cannot solve our economic challenges alone. Even if we were to marshal every single resource at our disposal, and engage on a huge expenditure of public funds, we would not alone be able to guarantee employment to the millions of people who are out of work. What we have achieved we have achieved together.”

He recognised that the private sector, civil society and the broader citizenry are critical to efforts to unleash the shackles of our multiple national crises. There was, said Ramaphosa, a need to acknowledge the crucial role of a range of social compacts where partners work together with government to identify and implement agreed solutions “through partnership and cooperation”. This was necessary to “[deliberately rebuild] institutions and [remove] impediments to investments”. The government would also improve the ease of doing business, he promised, reducing the time needed to form a company and obtain water licences, for example.

His address emphasised “inclusive growth”, with a focus on women and youth, and to rebuild private sector and public confidence in the government. One notable commitment was to review several aspects of the legal framework for preventing and combating gender-based violence. Many of the measures reaffirmed and initiatives announced were accompanied by some detail, while others would await the forthcoming Budget speech.

The fight against crime and corruption

Percentage identifying corruption as one of the top challenges facing the country: According to the SASAS series, there has been a dramatic increase in public recognition of corruption as a pressing concern facing the country since the early 2000s. In 2003, 9% of South Africans referred to corruption as a societal challenge, rising to a high of around 30% in 2015-2017. An improvement can be observed between 2017 and 2018/19, corresponding with the change in administration, but corruption still ranks as one of the most critical issues on the public agenda.

Source: HSRC SASAS 2003-2018/19.

Pointing to order

The president recommitted government to act “decisively against State Capture and to [fight] back against corruption”. Although he said little that was new, he did announce an initiative that will doubtless be welcomed by the struggling construction sector that government needs in order to realise the president’s commitment to infrastructure investment to spur economic growth. 

“I have prioritised our response to the growing problem of criminal groups that extort money from construction and other businesses. Specialised units – bringing together the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the National Prosecuting Authority – are mandated to combat these crimes of economic disruption,” he said.

In a welcome announcement to enhance leadership integrity and accountability, the president committed to make public the performance agreements that he will sign “with all ministers before the end of this month”. The objective is to “strengthen the capacity of the state and increase accountability”. His Cabinet “see these performance agreements as the cornerstone of a new culture of transparency and accountability, where those who are given the responsibility to serve – whether as elected office bearers or public servants – do what is expected of them… a culture where corruption, nepotism and patronage are not tolerated, and [where] action is taken against those who abuse their power or steal public money”.

This initiative could help revive trust in government only if this new transparency translates into tangible and meaningful “consequence management” for the nation’s leaders. Ahead of the SONA, many civil society organisations, led by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, joined a call to make 2020 “the year of orange overalls”.

Other welcome indications of a government that appears to be hearing the cries of its people included promises of improvements in safety and security. Thus, “[p]olice visibility, effective training and better resourcing of police stations are our priorities”, while [t]o support the growth of the tourism industry, the SAPS will increase visibility at identified tourist attraction sites”. In addition, “[a]nti-gang units will be further strengthened, with priority given to the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Gauteng and the Free State” and that police graduates would increase from 5,000 to 7,000 “to strengthen local policing”. Recent efforts along these lines in the Western Cape seem to be starting to make a positive difference, but there remains much more to be done to effectively deal with the gangsters who are tearing apart our fragile social fabric, and to end economically damaging attacks on tourists and infrastructure.

Ramaphosa’s speech also confronted the reality of Eskom as the foremost of several deeply dysfunctional state-owned enterprises.

An unenterprising state of affairs

Among state-owned enterprises, Eskom’s inability to maintain the national grid represents the predominant concern at present. This enduring electricity crisis has contributed significantly to South Africa’s deteriorating economic circumstances. Yet the situation with other state-owned enterprises is also critical. South African Airways (SAA) was placed under business rescue in late 2019, while military technology and defence company Denel had to receive a R1.8-billion injection from government in August 2019 to pay salaries and suppliers (Khumalo, 2019). In October last year, National Treasury provided a R2.1-billion bailout to assist the battling South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), with another R1.1-billion scheduled to be released once the broadcaster complies with certain preconditions.

There are various reasons for the dismal situation of the state-owned entities. According to the Presidential State-Owned Entities Review Committee (PRC) Report (2012), the South African legislative and policy framework under which SOEs operate is fragmented and often contradictory. The current legal framework “does not facilitate the execution of the fiduciary duties of these entities satisfactorily”. Arguably, the current legislative and policy framework constrains many SOEs from performing their developmental, strategic and socioeconomic functions’. Eight years later, however, the SOE landscape has not improved because the critical legislative framework and policy challenges confronting SOEs remains to be addressed (Kanyane, 2018). Arguably, if the Presidential Review Commission on State-Owned Entities’ recommendations had been given timely and serious consideration, some governance failures and the extent of State Capture may have been more limited.

Civil society and political commentators argue that continued corruption and lack of skilled leadership – compounded by cadre deployment – continue to be significant contributors to the poor performance among SOEs. For instance, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation lobbied late last year for the government to extradite the Guptas from their self-imposed exile and hold them to account for their alleged role in State Capture, notably of several socio-economically strategic SOEs. Against this backdrop, the president’s SONA briefly expressed clear support for law enforcement agencies’ ongoing efforts.

The president’s appointment of André de Ruyter as Eskom’s new CEO, based on the board’s recommendation, is acknowledged. It remains to be seen whether De Ruyter will be able to successfully rescue the power utility, especially in the face of strong union opposition. 

Further efforts by the president include talks about the controversial proposed agreement between government, business and labour to use funds from the Public Investment Commission (PIC), the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Unemployment Insurance Fund to pay Eskom’s debt (Mkhwanazi, 2020). While the government debates the merits of this proposal, many South Africans and businesses have to confront the far-reaching economic and social impacts of load shedding. Public sector pension beneficiaries will take some convincing that their pensions will be safe, particularly given the unanswered questions still hanging over the probity of PIC investments following revelations at the recent inquiry chaired by the former president of the Supreme Court of Appeal, Justice Lex Mpati.

Ramaphosa’s SONA announcements clearly recognise that not much can be expected of the national electricity utility in the immediate future. De Ruyter has his hands full in dealing with effective implementation of a long-overdue “philosophy of maintenance”, the internal “divisionalisation” of the utility (instead of the unbundling and restructuring so strongly opposed by the ANC’s alliance partners), as well as a “review of irregular contracts” (including for coal supplies) and a recently-announced extension of lifestyle audits from senior to middle management. The process of setting Eskom’s house in order will take considerable time and commitment.

Against this backdrop, the president committed his government to “achieve a secure supply of reliable, affordable and, ultimately, sustainable energy”. However, consistent with one of his key themes of making difficult choices as we confront our complex challenges, he reminded us that, “We undertake this decisive shift in our energy trajectory at a time when humankind faces its greatest existential threat in the form of climate change.” The president’s speech, therefore, opened the door to a range of energy sources outside of Eskom.

Eskom’s crisis offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for South Africa to embrace the need to decisively wean itself off its over-reliance on greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels and other forms of water-intensive energy sources in a country that is likely to face increasingly unpredictable water supplies.

SASAS research has shown that a large proportion of the South African public is concerned about the current high costs of energy as well as its chronic unreliability.

Energy concerns in South Africa: South Africans display high levels of worry about different aspects of energy supply. Pricing and power interruptions sit atop the list of concerns, mentioned by close to three-quarters of adults. Significant numbers additionally worry about the effects that corruption, technical failure, load shedding, and even natural disaster may have on their energy supply.

Concerns about certain energy issues, ranking highest to lowest (% very or somewhat worried)” Source: HSRC SASAS 2017/18.

Energy supply preferences (2018): The survey also asked questions on preferences for specific sources to be used for generating domestic electricity. These included fossil fuels, renewable energy sources, and nuclear power. The strongest preference was for solar energy (62% large/very large share of electricity supply). Yet, there remains substantial demand for coal-based electricity (50% large/very large), and moderate support for wind and hydroelectric power; much lower support for gas, biomass and nuclear, which is partly related to more circumscribed awareness of these sources.

The public’s preferred integrated resource plan: “How much of the electricity used in South Africa should be generated from the following energy sources?” (large /very large share)

A transition to labour-intensive, renewable energy sources should also help assuage fears of job losses as the green economy is given a boost by a clear policy direction. Indeed, the president promised that the “Presidential Commission on Climate Change will ensure that as we move towards a low carbon-growth trajectory that we leave no one behind”.

The president committed to finalising the Climate Change Bill to provide a “regulatory framework for the effective management of inevitable climate change impacts by enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change – and identifying new industrial opportunities in the green economy”. One such set of catalysing economic and employment opportunities seems likely to flow from the announcement of a “smart city” to be constructed near Lanseria airport in Gauteng, which “will be a leading benchmark for green infrastructure continental[ly] and internationally”.

Thuma mina, masinyane! A need to rapidly roll up the sleeves and deliver

From the HSRC’s research, it appears that South Africans do not believe that the government can adequately navigate the country under the weight of the present socio-economic challenges. Ramaphosa’s SONA identified several areas for decisive action to mitigate the escalating economic challenges and ensure that the government will be more accountable to the electorate.

However, widespread public distrust in government suggests that Ramaphosa’s government has much work to do in order to convince South Africans of its ability to turn the tide. While some clearly-articulated initiatives will doubtless provide encouragement, including the prospect of better-coordinated and joined-up policymaking and service delivery through the District Development Model (DDM), the president acknowledged the necessity of “excellence in planning and implementation”. Only then, in our view, can the government provide more trustworthy and inspirational leadership. DM

The authors are all with the Human Sciences Research Council – division of Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery: Dr Yul Derek Davids and Dr Benjamin Roberts are chief research specialists; Dr Narnia Bohler-Muller is executive director; and Gary Pienaar is senior research manager. HSRC SASAS data can be accessed at:\sasas


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