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Why our government’s credibility is shot

National assembly
National assembly
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

This week, something unusual happened. I was asked to speak to a government ministry.

Because of my role as a public critic, the ruling party thinks of me as a close relative of the devil and so the invitation was unexpected.

Even more strange was the offer to speak on a topic of my own choosing.

I took the bait and told a public works and infrastructure ministry audience why the people of SA have lost faith in this government; or more directly, “why after almost 30 years the public does not believe you”.

The meeting started very late. The minister was late. “DM” cannot make it, I was told. Who the hell is “DM”, I asked. deputy minister, I was told.

When you live and work on the expansive grounds of Groote Schuur Estate, you develop your own language.

I had a plane to catch to Johannesburg but no-one seemed to care as they loaded their plates with huge chunks of meat in the middle of a working day.

How on earth do these people think on extended stomachs? When I eventually got to speak, I thought it was time for straight talk.

One reason the public no longer trusts you is your inability to get simple things done.

I mentioned the startling case of the pit latrine toilets in two of the largest provinces.

Why is a problem so simple and a cause so moral that difficult to fix? You cannot get even the simplest of things done. You cannot even start this meeting on time.

The public does not trust you not simply because of the lack of capacity within the state but because of the lack of integrity across officialdom.

Capacity can be fixed through training; there is, however, no module on integrity.

Integrity is something that can only be built over time through leadership that can be trusted. You are not trustworthy.

People do not trust you because there is an overwhelming sense in the public mind that a tipping point has been reached.

The sheer scale and ubiquity of corruption across the state sector means that it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to claw back and build a civil service wholly dedicated to putting people first.

That ship, by most accounts, has sailed.

Another reason for widespread distrust of government is the continuing self-delusion among yourselves that policies and plans actually constitute change.

We are a country that has overinvested in the symbolism of policy at the expense of turning words into action.

(By the way, I do not for one moment believe that those bold plans of the president to fix the energy crisis are going to make their way through the planning apparatus of the bureaucracy and the captured politics of the state to end load-shedding. If you believe that those announcements are anything but political positioning in the face of a deep crisis, then you’re asleep at the development wheel).

People’s judgment of governments relies on the evidence of lived experience, not the normative language of politics.

When people witness the mushrooming of shacks in open spaces, they make two conclusions.

You cannot provide decent housing for the poor and you actually do not care about the dangers of makeshift housing to the health and wellbeing of others.

Young people who are contemplating leaving our shores speak of the manifest lack of justice in the face of widespread criminality — especially for the powerful.

Witness the revolt of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and other provinces against the step-aside rule.

Accountability is not cool.

Assassinations happen but criminals are seldom put away.

That communicates vulnerability about your own life and the precious lives of your family.

When that trust is lost that the government will provide you with a reasonable measure of safety and security, then your credibility is shot.

And people do not trust this government because of long periods of feeling cut off from our leadership; the lack of honest and forthright communication about (a) crisis is now commonplace.

When the president eventually surfaced this week, people rightly asked: why now and why were these commonsense ideas about energy not implemented years ago? The trust deficit is real.

As with bullet trains and other ridiculous proposals, these proposals are a response to criticism from within the party — remember Thabo Mbeki’s blistering attack on the president — and from outside it.

Regardless, trust is broken and all this talk about a so-called social compact  is another one of those political keywords that are actually quite meaningless.

I agree with everything you said, the minister noted in response.

At that point I had to leave for the airport.

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