South Africa’s Trust Deficit and Covid-19

By Published On: 30th June 2020

Freedom Day, a public holiday commemorating South Africa’s first democratic elections, passed with a bitter sense of irony.

After more than twenty-five years since the end of apartheid, the introduction of the national lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 has meant that South Africans remain apart from one another – this time, for good reason. The proactive lockdown was widely commended and successful in reducing the spread of the virus. But the pandemic and the lockdown have had severe consequences for society.

IJR colleagues have highlighted the economic devastation caused by both the pandemic and the national lockdown, raised concern about the prevalence of gender-based violence and brutal policing, and reiterated the importance of protecting human rights.

How will South Africans respond to the lockdown and what effect will this have on society?

To provide some insight, the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB), a nationally representative public opinion survey regularly conducted by IJR, asks respondents how much trust they have in the state and each other.

Findings from the 2019 SARB suggest that South Africans have relatively low levels of trust in the state. Responses to the 2018 Afrobarometer survey, another nationally representative survey conducted by IJR, suggest that access to healthcare is highly unequal.



The SARB data reveals that South Africans only have a high degree of trust in their immediate circles of contact – relatives and neighbours – and low levels of trust in people of differing cultural backgrounds – language, religion, sexuality. Worryingly, a small majority of respondents do not trust foreigners, especially from African countries.



The SARB shows that there is a trust deficit in society. The state is not held in high regard by citizens, as service delivery remains uneven and officials are perceived to be unaccountable.

South Africans’ lack of trust in one another is even more concerning. After being kept apart and made to be distrustful of one another for so long, it is perhaps unsurprising that a lack of trust remains pervasive.

But one of the most consistent findings from the SARB surveys – since its first iteration in 2003 – is that South Africans identify inequality as the greatest division in society. It is inequality, in all its manifestations such as income, wealth, resources, and access to services, that keeps South Africans apart and sustains a lack of trust.

It is too early to say with certainty how much South Africans’ opinions on the state and each other has changed since the lockdown. But the effects of physical distancing, self-isolation, restrictions on social gatherings, and a general fear of contracting COVID-19 are likely to amplify existing trust deficits in society.

As South Africa charts a road to recovery from COVID-19, it is imperative that public trust in authority and in each other is earned and restored. Without trust – the glue that keeps democracies together – the pandemic threatens to erode the many successes of freedom.

Mikhail Moosa – Project Leader, South African Reconciliation Barometer

Picture credit: Jerome Delay/Reuters

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