The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer (ETB) — the 17th — was conducted online in 28 countries with over 33 000 respondents, of whom 1 150 were South African. This year, those South Africans’ distrust in government dropped even lower than last year’s almost negligible 16%, to 15%, and it is still the least trusted of all governments in the survey – the global average showed a 41% trust in government.

The ETB measures global levels of trust in and credibility of four institutions – business, the government, media, and NGOs. Respondents are asked how much they trust the four institutions to do what is right, using categories such as integrity, engagement, operations, leadership, diversity, and purpose. The report is published by communications and public relations group Edelman.

Last year’s survey brought bad news for the South African government. The survey showed that public trust in governments generally sank to its lowest level since the barometer was first published in 2000. Developing countries fared particularly badly, with two Brics countries – South Africa and Brazil – filling the two bottom positions. Only 21% of Brazilians trusted their government, while in South Africa only a paltry 16% of people trusted their government.

According to the 2016 ETB, therefore, the South African government was the least trusted of all. The situation is no different this year. Besides South Africans’ ever-declining trust in government, their trust in media fell six points to 39%. Trust in business fell four points to 56%, and trust in NGOs remained at 58%, the same as last year – this latter sector is the most trusted in South Africa. These percentages apply to the general population.

South Africa was one of only five countries in the survey which showed any trust in CEOs – although this fell a notable 16 points to 52%. Distrust in CEOs fell in all 28 countries, and they are distrusted in 23 countries.

Measuring levels of trust

The ETB measures levels of trust in two groups: the elite or “informed public” group – those meeting the criteria of age 25-64, college educated, in the top 25% of household income, and high engagement with media – and the mass population, who make up the rest of the population. This latter group represent 87% of the population globally.

A score of less than 50% indicates distrust, while over 59% indicates trust. Those in between are considered neutral.

Among the informed public, overall trust in South Africa was 49%, compared to 60% for the global average, and 41% for the mass population, compared to the global average of 45%. This ever-growing trust gap is significant, because it can lead to consequences such as the rise of populist politicians and the blocking of innovation.

In addition, 67% of South African respondents overall felt that the system is failing its people, while 24% were uncertain – fear of corruption, immigration, and the eroding of social values contributed to this general feeling. This is the fourth-lowest percentage of the 28 countries.

“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 US president Donald Trump,” said Edelman South Africa MD Jordan Rittenberry. “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.”

Declining trust in the main pillars of society has fuelled the belief that the system is no longer working, said Rittenberry, 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 labour 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 have greater trust in.”

These low levels of trust in government explain why people have more trust in Chapter 9 institutions such as the Public Protector and the judiciary, he said.

“Countries that combine a lack of faith in the system with deep societal fears, such as France, Italy, South Africa, the US, and Mexico, are electing or moving towards populist candidates,” commented Edelman CEO and president Richard Edelman.

Media not widely trusted

The decline in South African media trust was accompanied by a rise in trust in search engines from 66% in 2016 to 69% in 2017. “This means that South Africans would rather search for news on Google than on accredited news websites,” Rittenberry said.

With CEOs on the brink of distrust, business leaders need to play a more active role in society, Rittenberry said. The distrust could partly be attributed to news circulating in the press about CEOs earning several million rands in bonuses, he added, with some, such as former SABC CEO 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 empathise with the very rich or the very poor, which in turn is likely to affect trust.”

A substantial 78% 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 – 69% of the general South African population said that listening to customers builds trust in a company.

To rebuild trust and restore faith in the system, said Edelman, institutions must step outside of their traditional roles and work toward a new, more integrated operating model that puts people — and the addressing of their fears — at the centre of everything they do.