South Africa losing trust in public institutions

SOUTH Africans have lost trust in virtually all major public institutions —except churches — because of political scandal, greed, crime and poverty. Scandals that have eroded trust include the arms deal, bribery and corruption allegations against ANC president Jacob Zuma and alleged criminal misconduct implicating Police Com­missioner Jackie Selebi.

An annual Human Sciences Research Council’s survey on public attitudes has found that trust in national government and Parliament dropped by 20% between 2004 and last year and trust in political parties dropped by 16%.

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Survey Results: Between TRUST and SCEPTICISM: Public confidence in institutions

Other institutions such as courts, provincial government, the defence force and the police have also seen modest but notable declines in trust (between 5% and 10%). South Africans were now less likely to place confidence in local government and the police (34% and 39% respectively).

What could be driving the rising mistrust in the country’s political institutions? On the basis of other studies, a number of plausible hypotheses emerge:

· political scandal;

· self-enrichment and conspicuous consumption among officials and leaders;

· critical media messages about politicians and the government;

· a public perception that societal problems such as poverty and crime are not being solved;

· perceived poor responsiveness of politicians to citizens’ grievances; and

· ineffectiveness in delivering upon developmental promises.

The causes of mistrust serves as a lesson to those who want to protect the reputation of their institution. Take for instance promises versus delivery. In my Reputation classes I call this consistency work. When words, actions and behaviour are in synch with each other.

Why promise something if you cannot deliver on it? Empty words can be damaging. There is also a clear warning that strategic communication plans are not working. There is a saying that perceptions are a person’s reality. Is it? There is something called Subjective and Objective Reality. Using the facts can often result in understanding, provided certain rules of communication applies. Communication that reaches its destination can prevent skewed perception. This survey seems to indicate that a revamp of strategic communications plans is a necessity.

The perceived poor responsiveness issue speaks clearly about recording of grievances, response and communication again and again. In one IT company, there is a system of escalation where a complaint is escalated every 2 hours until it reaches the Chairman. Apparently few reaches his ears.

The survey state that other factors to be considered include illiteracy, which constrains access to knowledge and information; and the lack of firsthand knowledge of many institutions due to geographic isolation from many public institutions. (Illiteracy again demonstrates the inability of institutions to factor into communication plans, the problems of the so-called voiceless)

The survey, conducted by Ben Roberts, a research specialist in development programmes, found that political parties consistently received the lowest trust ratings (27% in 2007) of all the institutions examined. (Now does that seem strange to you?)

But the majority of citizens (81% on average) have consistently shown greatest confidence in churches. Hopefully churches will stay immune to scandals. After all we have had the Jim Bakers, Jimmy Swaggart, Catholic Churches molestation debacles, gay issues and high- profile divorces.