Guest Post: How President Ramaphosa Can Begin Rebuilding Public Trust in South African Government

Today’s guest post is from Larry Kirsch, an economist who is currently the Managing Partner of IMR Health Economics.

The South African government, like many governments around the world, faces daunting challenges due to the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, economic collapse, and civil unrest. Addressing these problems requires not only decisive action by leaders, but also a sufficient reservoir of public trust. Without such trust, a leader’s call for civic sacrifice and solidarity may not receive the desired response. Unfortunately, South African citizens do not currently have much trust in their government. The leading international survey of trustworthiness, the Edelman Trust Barometer, reported this past January that trust in government among South Africans ranked lowest among the 28 countries surveyed—lower than Russia and Argentina and well below India and China.

Part of this lack of trust is due to chronically stressed economic conditions, as well as extreme structural inequalities. But citizens’ trust has been further undermined by South Africa’s endemic corruption. The corruption of former President Jacob Zuma and his closest cronies (especially the rapacious Gupta family) was well-documented in a a November 2016 report issued by the Office of the Public Protector, then headed by the highly-regarded Thuli Madonsela. That report, entitled The State of Capture, also emphasized the burden of corruption on everyday citizens, documenting, for example, how corruption had contributed to the dysfunctions in vital public services and state owned enterprises.

Will the relatively new government of President Cyril Ramaphosa be able to galvanize trust and obtain the degree of public support needed to deal with the grave threats facing South Africa? On the one hand, President Ramaphosa’s public statements, especially since the outbreak of the coronavirus in South Africa in early March, have been decisive, inclusive, and progressive, particularly in relation to the call for solidarity and the government’s commitment to the apportionment of healthcare, work, food, and other public support on the basis of need. But if President Ramaphosa truly wishes to begin a ”radical” restructuring process based on principles of fairness, social cohesion, and inclusive growth, he will have to deal squarely with the persistence of the culture of corruption, as well as with broader concerns about government openness and public accountability. And his stirring speeches have so far not included much information on how his administration intends to tackle these crucial issues.

One important element of a comprehensive strategy to rebuild the South African government’s integrity—and with it citizen trust in that government—would be for President Ramaphosa to personally back robust implementation of South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). Continue reading