I’M TOLD that governments all over the world have always lacked sufficient quantities of the same commodity: the trust of their citizens. bdc1f5b523a94f6aba62434bbc6edf4b

This may be so, but I also believe that some governments are more trusted by their citizens than others because they work hard to earn this trust. They work hard to earn their citizen’s trust not because they’re necessarily inherently well-meaning; they do so because they understand and fear the power of their citizen’s free vote which is crucial for their political survival.

In fact, citizens in most advanced societies, armed with their votes, have the power to change if not totally influence the destiny of their countries.

In less advanced countries, citizens either underestimate the power that lies in their vote – assuming that they can exercise it freely – or they fear the power that resides in it, unsure of being able to deal with the change that can be unleashed through exercising their vote.

Sadly, in some cases this power remains only theoretic, as it easily gets yanked away from the citizens through all forms of manipulation by politicians.

The poorer, less worldly and more under-educated citizens are, the more vulnerable they are to manipulation by politicians.

This gets worse in societies where archaic traditional and religious beliefs continue to hold sway. We see this, for instance, when African communities get urged to remember a supposedly idyllic period in their history – a period whose details have only been passed down through word-of-mouth, dubbed oral history – when everything was peaceful and people subjected themselves to (paternal) authority which always knew what was best for them.

Parts of South Africa are not immune to the latter form of persuasion.

Steve Biko was referring to a different set of leaders when he warned that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. You’d think that these words have lost relevance over the years; sadly they have not.


Learning from Obama

Love him or hate him, US President Barack Obama was correct when he mentioned in that maiden African speech of July 2009, delivered in the Ghanaian parliament, that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions”. This statement is as true today, even in South Africa, as it was then.

Obama went on to say that “governments that respect the will of their own people and govern by consent, and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not.

“This is about more than just holding elections. It’s also about what happens between elections. Repression can take many forms, and too many nations, even those that have elections, are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves or if police can be bought off by drug traffickers.

“No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20% off the top or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy; that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there.

“And now is the time for that style of governance to end. In the 21st century, capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success; strong parliaments; honest police forces; independent judges; an independent press; a vibrant private sector; a civil society; those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in people’s everyday lives,” he said.


Where is South Africa in all of this?

You can take what you want from the above, but one thing is clear: the painstaking work that went into creating the strong, independent, post-apartheid institutions of democracy will have gone to waste if the South African public fails to protect its public protector and other democratic institutions.

Attacks on our institutions don’t have to be violent. Typically, it takes the form of appointing with impunity ill-qualified people, often beholden to political masters, to run these crucial institutions and others that are important for our economic well-being as a nation.

We’ve seen such tendencies at South African Airways, Spoornet, the SABC and other institutions where our collective socio-economic and political fate is placed at risk, often with our naïve consent.

To regain the trust of the outside world as a national brand and attract the best skills and increased foreign direct investment to our shores, we have to nurture trust internally. We cannot achieve this effectively if no fundamental change takes place in our conduct; social, political, and economic.

We all have a role to play in this.