Diary Pages: Trust in Government

Exploring whether people’s level of trust in the government has shifted during the lockdown can give us an insight into how citizens feel the pandemic is being managed. We asked our diarists if the lockdown had changed the level of trust they have in the government, and if so, why. The answers were split between those who trusted the government’s plans and responses to dealing with COVID-19 and those who had low or decreasing levels of trust. This is reflective of a broader polarisation taking place in society in regard to government regulations and management of lockdown and the pandemic response. What is surprising is how few ‘fence-sitters’ there are when it comes to support for government policies; they are either castigated or praised.

Nothing has changed: consistent trust in the government

Many respondents, such as Oscar from the informal settlement of Shukushukuma, felt that the government has handled the pandemic response in a ‘fair, good and strategic‘ manner. Similarly, Andile from Khayelitsha, still has ‘faith in them, they are doing their best’.  Ash, in Delft, echoes this sentiment and explained that the government ‘are doing what needs to be done to control the spread of the virus.’

Trusting the government more than before

For other diarists their trust in government has actually increased in the past few months. Thembisile, in Imizamo Yethu, didn’t expect he government to act in a supportive way, but now feels that the President ‘loves his country and his people‘ and the government ‘has acted in  a great  way‘. Faith, from Hangberg, agrees that the government are doing a much better job than previous administrations, ‘taking huge responsibility for their people and taking risk…the government has changed a lot for the good, honestly‘. Jay’s trust, in Marina Da Gama, has also grown, ‘and I’ve so far agreed with most, if not all, of their decisions’.

‘Yes my level of trust has changed…I used to think that our government care little about us. But I was never so wrong. I feel that my government really cares about my health, about my family and friends and my people. The government initiated the lockdown so that I can be safe, including my family…Whatever decisions they make I support them with all my heart. The government knew that something dark called Corona virus is coming to South Africa. So they knew without the lockdown I will not survive the invisible enemy…They are saving lives and they give hope to the people’. Nathi, Imizamo Yethu

Increasing credit for a job well done

The diarists had a range of reasons for why they thought the government is trustworthy. These included government providing clear and necessary guidelines for how to prevent the spread of the virus, basing decisions on sound advice, the provision of social grants to help those in need, and a well-planned approach to ending the lockdown.

Lwando, from Imizamo Yethu, and Siphenathi, from Khayelitsha, both felt that the government had been proactive in terms planning and giving help where it was needed. Nathi agrees that the government have provided food and information to help citizens ‘be aware and survive’. He also lauded the closing of boarders and the provision of security to ‘to make sure that [I] am safe in my community’.

Tim, from Oranjezicht, trusts the ‘National Government to take good, soundly based decisions regarding the emergency handling of the health crisis. Their health advisers have been excellent and reasoning sound so far’. For Owethu, from Imizamo Yethu ‘they introduced a phased approach plan which will help them monitor the virus as they open the economy‘. Ayanda, in Khayelitsha, agrees with current lockdown plans as ‘the government has relaxed some regulations because they are alive to the fact that people have to work and companies have to open in order to save jobs‘.

“They’ve made hard decisions that they know carry many risks. The President himself has kept a strong leadership position (and humour)…even though the ANC is not a party I currently support, I do support our President in this time. He has made the decision of keeping the country safe from an uncontrollable outbreak by making hard decisions and this can only commended.” Jay, Marina Da Gama

That said, those who have trust is the government do still recognise there are challenges. Andile, in Khayelitsha, for example, explains how ‘they might take time to deliver their promises – remember we are 50 million in South Africa‘.

Persistent levels of distrust

For others, trust in current government approaches are low. Many never had much faith in government prior to the crisis. For others, however, the loss of trust is recent.

Audioman, in Newlands, distrusted the government before COVID-19 emerged. His opinion has not changed. ‘The ANC are a deeply flawed decision-making entity’, Audioman explains, ‘ they lack strong leadership, [and there are] too many entrenched personal and political agendas’. Ishrene, in Marina da Gama reflects similar feelings, ‘I have always viewed government with a healthy dose of skepticism and I have not, in the last decade, trusted government to deliver effectively‘. Taila in Khayelitsha agrees, ‘I will never trust the government because they have empty promises‘.

Decreasing trust in the government

Nonceba from Khayelitsha feels, ‘government has failed us’.  Ameena, in an occupation in Woodstock, ‘most definitely‘ doesn’t ‘trust decisions made by government anymore‘. Warren in Hangberg’s trust, had been ‘optimistic’ but now feels the government are ‘disgraceful and deceitful’.

‘I used to respect my government for what good they did. But now…our lives and rights are no more our own. Democracy is just a word. Jazzy D, Woodstock occupation

Several respondents echo the turn that Warren experienced from optimism to frustration and distrust. As Melody explains, ‘I was very impressed at the start of lock down and I think our president has handled many difficult choices very well‘.  Jazzy D felt ‘proud to be South African‘. However, this optimism was temporary. As Sparrow, in Newlands, states, I am back to where I was before with no trust that the government will do the right thing’.  Jazzy D is ‘Now fearful for my life my, family’s and fellow South Africans.’

It is also important, though, to differentiate between national, provinicial and local government. For some respondents, it was the lower levels of government who were underperforming. Tim, for example, feels that ‘local government (ie CPT), has been appalling, and has shown little leadership or insight. They have made wasteful and bad decisions around dealing with the public (overzealous, misguided policing) and been violent with the homeless’. Esethu has ‘lost trust in the provincial government because it seems like playing political games is more important to them than saving lives‘.

‘I despair as I anticipate a social revolt and it’s going to be a tsunami. I’m sorry I’m not hopeful tonight’. Ishrene, Marina Da Gama

Drivers of distrust: Distance, Poor distribution and insufficient protection for the vulnerable

The diarists gave us a range of reasons for why they don’t have trust in government. There were some common frustrations such as poor communication and insufficient protection of the vulnerable, including the distribution of food parcels.

Ishrene feels, ‘Cyril doesn’t address us regularly’ and Judy agrees, ‘ communication levels are deteriorating’. For Fadwah, from Hangberg, the strategy on food parcels is, ‘catastrophic‘. Nolusapho, from Khayelitsha notes, ‘The food they are giving us is expired and…doesn’t last’. Nonceba agrees that ‘food parcel distribution should have been done earlier on before people began starving in the townships and started looting shops‘ and that ‘elderly people are standing in long queues, sleeping in the open, to access their Sassa grants. There’s a lot that government has to fix to gain ones trust’. 

It’s very sad and painful that these hard times have shown the brutality and inequalities demonstrated by the system.‘ Papama, Khayelitsha

‘I, like many wealthier citizens will be ok; most will not.’ Audioman, Newlands

A polarized citizenry

Those whose trust had diminished gave their dislike of government policies as a reason. However, diarists has polarized views on the same policy: the lockdown was too severe or not severe enough; there is too much freedom or not enough freedom; security services are too harsh or not visible enough. The lockdown has protected the economy or not protected it enough.  

When referring to the role of the state in managing citizen’s lives, Gassie from the Woodstock occupation wants firm government control: ‘The government must make the wearing off the mask compulsory and if you don’t have it on you must be locked up‘ while Fadwa feels we should not be subject to regulations that limit freedom of choice: ‘the government is playing god with our lives’.

For Patsie, from Khayelitsha, the state has ‘put the economy first’ while Zusiphe, from Philippi, believes ‘we’re not working because of [government] has closed the businesses’.

For Warren, the army and police’s visibility is far too low in his community, ‘They only arrive sometime in the evenings when everyone is already in their houses’.  Nessie, on the other hand, doesn’t understand why they need so many SANDF members to be deployed, especially since it’s costing close to R5 billion. That money could of been spent elsewhere’.

‘The security and law enforcement personnel have failed to enforce the lockdown regulations and protect [society] again all the vulnerability and exposure to danger. Instead, human rights of some ordinary people were violated by these personnel during these trying times.’  Papama, Khayelitsha

‘The government has sold us to the devil, they need to make strict regulations, so that people stay home’. Sivuyile, Khayelitsha

Trust goes both ways: Citizens need to work with government

One theme that emerged strongly from many of our diarists is the responsibility of citizens to work with government if COVID-19 is to be successfully managed. Kungo, from Shukushukuma informal settlement, argues that, ‘we as the people need to also help ourselves by following the hygiene process and stay at homes‘. Jay would ‘like to see more support from other groups in government towards our president’ Nozuko agrees that, ‘[Ramaphosa] is trying very hard but he cannot do it alone! People must take responsibility too, it’s for our own safety at the end of the day.

These diary entries raise a series of questions:

What are the personal and structural factors that can influence levels of trust in government?

What could the government do differently to increase citizens’ trust?

Will people’s levels of trust in the government now solidify or will they continue to shift over time?

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