Defend Truth


Distrust across South African society will determine our future in this year’s election


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Distrust in the government is understandable given the enormity of the collapse of public services, failures of state-owned enterprises and general sloth that permeates the public service.

South Africa has all the ingredients for social unrest, disturbances and fluctuations present in most modern democracies. Of course, individual ingredients, elements or issues vary in presence, volume and application.

We should run a rule over these elements, first individually, then together for their significance, but this is probably too large a task for a single column.

It is possible, nonetheless, to single out the lack of trust that runs through South African society as one factor that is most deleterious for democracy and participation.

I should get this out of the way. The mere suggestion that societies the world over suffer, in varying measures, from all the problems that South Africa does, may not satisfy the lust for the incantation or rituals of hatred that focus on the particularities that shape our immediate — and dearly held — ideological, racial, religious or ethnic prejudices.

This takes nothing away from the fact that crime, political violence (somatic and otherwise), corruption, economic decline, financial instability and anger are not unique to South Africa.

The lust for incantation satisfies only our base cravings … it’s not what social criticism or political economic commentary and analyses are about. For instance, it would serve a very narrow interest were I to write 100 repetitive lines as a column every week stating: “The ANC is corrupt. The EFF is dangerous and misguided. The DA is the only party to solve our problems. Whites have done no wrong. Black people are responsible for everything that has gone wrong.”

Imagine writing that over and over again in 52 columns a year…

Though some of our scribes have found genius ways of repeating that nonsense in different ways behind thin veils of “objectivity” or the “fair and balanced” motto that launched Fox News in the US, and which rapidly disappeared when the man who coined the phrase, Roger Ailes, was fired in 2017 for sexual harassment.

Our scribes believe, a little like Percival Wemys Madison, that their names and pedigree will carry their messages and elevate them, rescue their declining cachet and credibility…

It is all so reminiscent of that old canard that I have banged on about for a couple of decades; the maladjusted belief that all the ills of humanity (crime, rape, war, plunder, corruption, theft, etc) emerged in the winter of 1994 and that nothing good would come or has come from the past 30 years of democracy.

In that imaginary, the world before 1994 was all lightness and laughter and unbridled joy and prosperity. Happiness, in this imaginary, is the wish to change the present and replace it with a past once perfect.

It’s all rather tedious. This is not to say the citizenry has no right to protest, to expect and demand overall prosperity, social cohesion and stability, and equal measures of justice equally distributed across society. South Africa has an established culture of dissidence and public protest. Many people have been imprisoned, tortured and died to secure the democratic rights of dissent, protest and agency in South Africa.

Trust deficits around the world

A narrow economistic explanation of trust usually rests on “social capital” as the single most important “source” of wellbeing and prosperity, especially economic development. It is that economics rationalist dogma at work. The World Bank would, for instance, insist that social capital refers to “the internal social and cultural coherence of society, the norms and values that govern interactions among people and the institutions in which they are embedded,” but that it is “the glue that holds societies together and without which there can be no economic growth or human wellbeing”.

I remember this discussion rather well. In a previous incarnation, I was one of two people who crafted a paper on social capital and social cohesion for a former World Bank vice-president. I would insist, nonetheless, that there are very many forms of capital that can help us get a handle on how social cohesion and prosperity can be achieved, and how measures of trust may provide greater impetus to shared wellbeing, more equitable distribution and stability.

The problem is that trust has been in serious decline around the world over the past two decades or so. A snapshot taken from the rather conservative 2023 Report of the Edelman Trust Barometer provides the following facts:

  • Economic optimism is collapsing around the world, with 24 of 28 countries seeing all-time lows in the number of people who think their families will be better off in five years.
  • Business is now the sole institution seen as competent and ethical; government is viewed as unethical and incompetent. Business is under pressure to step into the void left by government.
  •  People in the top quartile of income live in a different trust reality than those in the bottom quartile, with 20+ point gaps in Thailand, the US and Saudi Arabia.
  • A shared media environment has given way to echo chambers, making it harder to collaboratively solve problems. Media is not trusted, with especially low trust in social media.

Argentina is the only country in the sample where there is less trust in government (only 20% of the sample trust their government) than there is in South Africa (where the figure is 27%). (See pages 15-16 of the 2023 Edelman Report). I am convinced that there will be people who would insist that that is wrong, because they want South Africa to be the country with the worst government in the world.

In an area that I have special personal interests, scientific exploitation and innovation, and given the nativism and Ptolemaic parochialism of the nationalists (the ANC) and the return-to-year-zero political economy of the EFF, there may be more problems ahead and deeper distrust.

Rapid innovation offers the promise of a new era of prosperity, but risks exacerbating trust issues, which could lead to further societal instability and political polarisation, which is spreading concern globally that politics has too great an influence on science and contributing, in turn, to a decline of trust in the institutions responsible for steering the world through change and towards a more prosperous future. This was taken more or less intact from the 2024 Edelman Report. I drew (above) from the previous year’s report because this year has a long way to go.

Domestic trust deficits and the next election

Anyway, as we head towards the election, there is a single element, one ingredient, that is worth discussing again, trust, and it must be situated in the context of a state-party nexus that came to resemble an organised crime family (see here, here, here and something I wrote almost nine years ago, here).

There is a glaring gap of trust between much of society and the state; people just do not trust that the state will do what is expected of states. The middle class should probably not overstate that. They either have a somewhat reliable delivery of goods and services or they can afford to pay for private delivery. The rural and urban poor have no such guarantees.

There is a similarly glaring gap between much of society and the ruling ANC — a distrust of individuals in the ANC and of the elision of party and state. Widespread corruption, maladministration and critical ethical lapses have all contributed to declining trust in the ANC. It is not insignificant, also, that there are gaps in trust among groups and individuals in South Africa.

The distrust of government is understandable given the enormity of the collapse of public services, failures of state-owned enterprises and general sloth that permeates the public service (never mind the bollocks, we remain far from state failure). Distrust among groups within the country is also at an all-time low.

According to Edelman’s research, South African society is “severely polarised” where people acknowledge deep divisions which are impossible to overcome. In this category, South Africa joins Argentina, Colombia, Sweden, the US and Spain. Argentina, Colombia and the US are the worst, most (severely) polarised societies ahead of South Africa.

At the levels of perception and reality, the election this year will be shaped by distrust in the state, especially of the ANC; of Jacob Zuma and whatever he is trying to achieve in regional or national politics with his uMkhonto Wesizwe party; distrust of the Economic Freedom Fighters because they represent, above all, the politics of revenge and recrimination and because they are believed to be no more than a chip of the old ANC bloc (it is hard to shake the feeling that they simply want to get their hands on the country’s wealth); distrust of the Democratic Alliance because it seems to represent white minority interests (with docile black bodies strategically placed in window seats); distrust of small parties like the Patriotic Alliance (because they are led by people with questionable backgrounds); distrust of ActionSA because it is believed to be xenophobic and seems to be no different in terms of policies from the DA (with touches of the old Purple Cow capitalists who failed so horribly in the last election); and other smatterings like Al Jama-ah who will appeal to a very small group of Wahhabist fundamentalists … and then there is Songezo Zibi who is an unknown quantity beyond the professional class that he represents, with strategically timed nods to black communities.

There can be no telling what will happen in the election, who will win or who will lose. Not knowing what comes next is what makes life exciting. Not knowing anything at all makes life worth living.

As for the election, the best we can say is that the gaps in trust — vertical trust between state and society, and horizontal trust (among the citizenry) — will probably determine the outcome. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    It is true that saying the whites did no wrong will solve nothing… but pointing out that almost 30 years later, this current generation of whites have done no wrong, would be a good start in healing the racial distrust and give the DA a chance at non-racial governance, for the good of all our children, black and white alike.

    • Ismail Lagardien says:

      thanks Anthony.

    • Skinyela Skinyela says:

      Is DA a white Political Party?

      Careful what you hint at, suggesting that the healing of racial distrust will make more people(read black people) vote DA and give it a chance to become governing Party of RSA…

      • Anthony Kearley says:

        As I understand it, there are more non-white South Africans voting for the DA than whites. Time to let go of preconceived ideas catch up with the new South Africa.

        • Skinyela Skinyela says:

          Ain’t you being disingenuous?

          Isn’t that because there are more black
          people in RSA than
          white people?

          Please present it as a percentage of the total VAP of white people, relative to that of
          the black people.

  • Spencer Eckstein says:

    Hi Ismail – interesting piece – is it not fear (and loathing) rather than lack of trust driving electoral behaviour?

    • Ismail Lagardien says:

      Spencer, completely unrelated (and I say this carefully) fear can be a very useful force. I am often asked what it is that drove me, back and forth, dropping out of school at 14, going back over and again, to the LSE and doing a PhD…. it was fear! so, it’s probably not appropriate in this context, but fear can be a force for “progress”. Specifically in response to what you raise, you’re correct. We fear each other and out of that comes the lack of trust or belief in honest or humble intents. This is too highfalutin, but… I have nothing. Thanks

  • District Six says:

    Corey Allen once said, “Quietly listening is a strong form of communication. We don’t always have to be the one giving opinions…”

    Read the opinions offered on DM Comments under each article.
    Who is the demographic most vociferous with their opinions. Take a hint and try some listening.
    Thank you, great reflection, Dr Lagadien. But who has ears to hear?

  • Alan Downing says:

    Only education can build a society composed of trustworthy and competent people. The South African education system needs to be totally revised with a new curriculum.

    • Ismail Lagardien says:

      I will not even attempt to make an excuse or be a mild apologist for the ruling alliance (notwithstanding the difficulties they faced over the first decade), but the “problem” with providing education, and sadly I am applying economics “logic” (don’t quote me ;–)) is that the turn-around, or rewards come/are reaped only after 15-25 years. If you send a child to school at 6, that child has a minimum of 12 years of education before we can expect the “investment” to pay dividends. Thanks for your comments.

    • Deon de Wet-Roos says:

      I’m sorry but I don’t intend to be nasty. I don’t think there is any way trust is going to be restored any time soon. Yes, literacy is important but you sit with a country where the avergae IQ is 68. Below an IQ of 80 people need considerable resources and assistance to do even menial labour. I know IQ is not the be-all and end-all. Sure, emotional intelligence and life experience all count but you are already on such a backfoot that there is not going to be enough money in a hundred years to assist with this poblem. Also, you have a society where the original Ubuntu has dried up. How are you going to fund the necessary education and additional resources?

  • David McCormick says:

    Interesting article, particularly the reference to Edelman’s research on“severely polarised” countries. Who would have thought that Sweden’s society is severely polarized. Sweden is (apparently) the 6th happiest country in the world in 2024, and from all reports I’ve read or heard, Sweden’s state-managed services work well and most people are athiest or agnostic (so religion is not a cause for divide).

    • Ismail Lagardien says:

      Yes, David! The data on Sweden was surprising at first. Then I remembered some trends in the late 1990s early 2000s that involved Karl Rove and some other fellow, both of whom sought a break with Sweden’s social democratic model and (specifically) wanted to introduce “the American model”. Conflict in Syria and Afghanistan led to influx of migrants (I looked at this issue first hand in 2015), which those associated with that “American model” used to whip up emotions. Another element, which I also looked at very closely, was the rise of religion (Islam) as a rallying force, in a country that is famously secular and atheist, both of which have made that country a bastion of progressivism (yes, my slip, which I rarely show, is showing). Then again, I have to factor in my long-run ideas. There has been a rise in more toxic, right-wing, populism around the world over the past two decades…. (don’t we, in South Africa just know that) Anyway, in the case of Sweden it’s a combination of factors. Still surprising when I first saw it.

  • André Pelser says:

    Trust is a product of a relationship, confidence is the result of performance. The disconnect between political establishments and electorates has grown rapidly globally. In my view because politicians are speaking at the voters, manipulating their fears and desires, rather than with them and understanding their anxiety. Politicians in SA earn more than R1million per annum plus perks, are untouched by life on the streets and in the rural areas. This is an untenable polarisation in a democracy in which basic services have been neglected on an industrial scale and fealty to the employer, the party, is more important than service to the nation.

    • Ismail Lagardien says:

      Thanks Andre. As mentioned before, I really almost always right about things that I think need more discussion/clarity/data. This helps. I do have a quite crude explanation which I mentioned in another column; when we SEE others, we SEE, white/black/religion/gender, which we associate with notions of good/bad/privilege/guilt/innocence, none of which helps build trust. My idealism reaches towards identifying the common good, and doing whatever it takes to achieve and protect it. Thanks again.

      • André Pelser says:

        We need idealism for hope Ismail, as you say, the temptation to be critical and pessimistic is almost irresistible. The common good, like common sense, is uncommon, but the light at the end of the tunnel beckons.
        Satisfying basic, common needs (Maslow) is the fundamental responsibility of government and its administration.
        Self- and party service undermines this responsibility as does PR representation. Accountability, transparency and the rule of law are keys to democracy, the latter the only barrier to majoritarianism.
        I am sure that you have read Francis Fukuyama’s book on identity and his works on democracy – well written.
        We need an electoral system in which politicians are accountable to their constituency, and personally liable for their actions.

        • Ismail Lagardien says:

          I will not minimise Frank’s intellect, not at all. We have often had solid discussions, especially about his end of history thesis, which he changed, slightly, afterwards and said it was about modernity. One thing I envy is that I had as many research assistants … unbelievable resource that is.

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