The wages of mistrust

Alf Stadler examines the relevance of trust to the way society functions and to social harmony and development.

The concept of social capital is increasingly used to understand why some communities and societies are relatively successful in establishing and maintaining collaborative networks, while others fail to do so. Social capital has been identified as a condition for generating economic development, so it is important to find ways of fostering it, and of identifying and neutralising constraints on it.

The main elements identified in the social capital literature are trust within and between associations, and social norms that emphasise values such as honesty, reliability, reciprocity, and equality. The outward manifestation of social capital is seen as the proliferation and strength of voluntary associations.

Groups that succeed in building social capital are able to nurture collaborative social activity. Those that fail, find it difficult to build collaborative projects, are unable to resolve the dilemmas of collective action (e.g. "free riders" such as workers who do not join unions but nevertheless benefit from union activity) and fail to control opportunistic social behaviour.

Not all forms of social capital have positive benefits. Only those forms of trust which go beyond the narrow circle of family and neighbourhood are capable of creating and sustaining benign collaborative networks (characterised by "positive externalities", as Francis Fukuyama put it.)

Situations in which people do not trust people outside their immediate circle are described by Edward Banfield as "a-moral familism", on the basis of his study of very poor Italian villages. "A-moral familism" precludes the development of extensive networks of social interaction and collaboration and fosters a sharp sense of opposition between "us" and "them". The mafia is seen to be a manifestation of a-moral familism: intense in-group loyalty; intense mistrust and hostility towards outsiders.

The decline of social capital
Robert Putman, who pioneered the quantitative study of social capital, argues that social capital has declined to an alarming extent in the United States over the past half century. Putman records that in 1960, 58% of respondents to a questionnaire agreed that "most people can be trusted" against 37% in 1993. Putnam notes a corresponding decline in church attendance, membership of political parties and trades unions, and other associations in civil society. Recent British surveys suggest a similar situation.

More pertinently for South Africans an inquiry limited to a survey of trust between business associates reaches much the same conclusion. A broader investigation by Lawrence Schlemmer, comes to the startling conclusion that 70% of South Africans trust one another less today than they did five years ago.

Recognising the importance of social capital and trust to societies, the politics department at Wits University has established a post-graduate research programme jointly sponsored by the University of Uppsala in Sweden.

In general, South African experience has probably paralleled the broad process of decline of social capital in the United States and Britain as society becomes more complex and depersonalised, and as power becomes more located in increasingly remote centres. But the particularities of recent South African history suggest that it is difficult to generalise about social capital, and that trust in the political arena may have increased, not declined (or, has perhaps increased and then declined), over the past two decades.

In contrast to the USA and Britain, South Africa witnessed a dramatic rise of civil society from the 1970s and 1980s, a rise that was singly the most important feature of South Africa's transition to democracy. From the 1970s the paranoia that pervaded the entire spectrum of South African politics during the 1950s and 1960s began to evaporate as the apartheid regime lost confidence in the face of a multitude of internal and external pressures.

These pressures were mainly generated through "political" trade unions, religious groups and community associations, which aligned themselves increasingly with the African National Congress. The new civil society that began to emerge during the 1980s was relatively open and loosely knit (though the ANC had, and has, an ambiguous record on the issue of openness.)

But before opening the champagne, it should be noted that South African civil society is an opaque entity, much clouded by the rhetoric of political correctness, that there are areas of social life which have not been significantly affected by democratisation, that any increase in civility has taken place from a very low base, and that there are tendencies in political and social behaviour which may undermine civility and trust, encouraging forms of "a-moral familism" rather than the development of broad collaborative social networks.

These tendencies may in part be explained as unresolved consequences of South Africa's historical experience. They are nevertheless part of contemporary reality. In many areas of contemporary life, including politics, the commitment to the values of civility are often ritualised phrases mouthed by a sophisticated leadership, and contradicted by what happens on the ground, where the reality is different.

Three recurring issues in contemporary South Africa - taxi violence, service payment boycotts and the weak popular acceptance of the legal system - illustrate how poorly the values of social capital are embedded in its social and political fabric.

Taxi violence and service payment boycotts, generated during the period of intense political struggle of the 1980s and early 1990s in response to efforts by government and private interests to reform certain elements in government, particularly at the local level, continue to disturb the peace.

The mistrust of the legal system is the symptom of a populist (or instinctualist) conception of law and order issues that is suspicious of the formal procedures of courts. The mistrust is in large measure a product of the struggle against apartheid as the formal system of justice became represented as the juridical instrument of apartheid.

The persistence of grass-roots activism
During the transition from apartheid to democracy, there were attempts to institute reforms by government and private associations, especially business associations. These often met with resistance from within black communities, and were appropriated in some degree by organisations like the United Democratic Front and the African National Congress.

Two of the most interesting from the social capital perspective were taxi violence and boycotts of service payments to local authorities. Both undermined the capacity to build associations based on trust in local communities, even after the demise of the apartheid state.

i) Taxi violence
Transport has long been a contentious issue in black South African communities. Low wages, long distances, near-monopolies by whites over road transportation, were the ingredients of conflicts between communities and the authorities from before the Second World War.

In 1987, the road transport industry was deregulated, and the field occupied by a large numbers of small transport operators. The liberalisation of the industry produced intense competition over routes and led to widespread conflict between rival taxi owners, usually formed into taxi associations.

Police were often reported present at scenes of violence between rival taxi associations, actively siding with one or another. According to Jackie Dugard, the leading authority on taxi violence, the authorities opportunistically manipulated taxi violence in order to destabilise pro-ANC communities in the Western Province.

Officials, including policemen, became actively involved in the taxi industry, as owners as well as partisans. Dugard saw that the continuation of taxi violence indicated the "efficacy of violence as a way of regulating the market by keeping prices up and competition down". She pointed to the failure of the new government to crack down on crime; and above, all on the "unresolved socio-economic conditions of South Africa's transition."

Her remarks underscored the general point made in the literature about the difficulty of generating social capital in very poor communities. Low levels of trust are not confined to the very poor, of course. Internecine squabbles between directors of companies are common. Black empowerment companies are not excepted.

ii) Service payment boycotts: from resistance to free riding
Like taxi violence, service payment boycotts and related activities, (illicit usage of electrical power for instance), originated in the "old" South Africa, sometimes as long ago as the 1940s. They underlined the poor legitimacy of state authorities, the shoestring character of financial and administrative arrangements in black urban areas, and the poverty of most of their inhabitants.

Until the 1970s, the administration of black urban areas was the province of under-provisioned local authorities elected by white ratepayers, and increasingly controlled by the central government. Until 1977, black representative bodies had purely advisory powers.

The 1976 uprising in Soweto stimulated a number of interventions in local government and the provision of services from government and private interest groups. The former sought to legitimise its power by setting up elected local authorities, while the latter introduced a number of reforms aimed at improving the quality of life.

These limited reforms became the target of opposition from within and outside the communities, some of them orchestrated into the general struggle against apartheid. Service boycotts, as well as stringently enforced consumer boycotts, dominated urban politics during the transition to democracy.

Like taxi violence, service boycotts have continued for almost a decade after the first democratic election in South Africa. Their persistence up to the present suggests that these socio-political conditions have been modified to a limited degree only. But they also suggest that a widely prevalent attitude is indistinguishable from those of the "free rider". Whether or not poverty is a predisposing factor in explaining non-payment, it has certainly become a major burden for local authorities and parastatals wrestling with the problems of transformation. Thus Telkom's bold plan to take telephones to the rural areas has been hamstrung by non-payment. It has "had to disconnect 40% of the 2,1-million phone lines it has delivered over four years at a cost of R35bn, mainly because of fraud and non-payment (Business Day, 15 May 2002).

iii) Mistrust of legal process
Courts are currently placed under popular pressure from groups who express dissatisfaction with sentences handed down. The sentences are either perceived to be too lenient (e.g. those imposed on whites who kill blacks but are not sentenced for murder) or too severe (heavy jail sentences imposed on blacks for crimes by "racist" courts which do not take sufficient account of the circumstances of their actions.)

Recently the ANC Youth League condemned the justice system as racist after the Transvaal Judge President Bernard Ngoepe, a black man, sentenced two whites to "only" 18 years imprisonment for the murder of a black youth. An angry crowd gathered outside the court after the sentencing, shouting, "Kill the Boer, kill the farmer", "Bring in Mugabe" and "Down with Ngoepe." (The Citizen 3 May 2002) The Judge President was constrained to issue a statement defending the court's decision.

A spokesman for the ANC Youth League recently described Andrew Babeile, a high school pupil who had been imprisoned for stabbing a fellow pupil, as a "victim of an unrepentant racist and unfair judiciary that sought to condemn him to criminality without a fair assessment of circumstances of his case." Interestingly, following the murder of a black in Cullinan in Gauteng Province, the League has instituted a consumer boycott in its campaign against what it perceives as racism in the judicial system.

Undoubtedly such sentiments have long been latent. But they have only come into the open in recent years, partly because the judiciary is now less insulated from criticism than it was before 1994, but partly also because such sentences do not accord with populist conceptions of justice. These notions of justice also feed into the sentiment that South Africa's institutions are racist.

Mob justice signifies mistrust in the legal process and its slow, mysterious and apparently counter-instinctual conclusions such as decisions based on rules of evidence, or on distinctions based on intent such as the ones courts make between murder, manslaughter and culpable homicide. Mob justice flourishes in areas in which, quite properly, the legal system does not recognise as crimes behaviour or imputed behaviour, perceived as antithetical to community wellbeing, such as alleged witchcraft. One thinks of the extra-judicial executions of "witches" in rural areas on the mere suspicion that they used their supposed supernatural power to harm members of the community.

Ultimately social capital is built or destroyed by what happens in political life. At the grass roots, the machinery of mediation established during the transition has undoubtedly suffered in recent years. But it has the potential to generate trust. It needs to be revived to that end.