In July 2021, as South Africa grappled with a third wave of COVID-19 infections, widespread looting and rioting erupted in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the two most populous provinces (Daily Maverick, 2021). The riots damaged businesses, public buildings, and key infrastructure and left at least 342 people dead, and order was restored only after the state deployed 25,000 army troops (Business Day, 2021; Davis, Nicolson, & Simelane, 2021).
The riots, the largest of their nature in the country’s democratic history, followed the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma for defying a court order to appear before the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture (News24, 2021). There is emerging evidence that Zuma’s supporters, particularly in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, had planned to incite rioting, looting, and the destruction of property to remind the authorities of his power and influence (Haffajee, 2021).
The looting has been described as a perfect storm that combined disgruntled allies of Zuma, some of whom had undergone military training during the struggle against apartheid, with a population of largely poor, unemployed, and desperate civilians. In a vacuum of power and authority where elected leaders and the police were unable to persuade their constituents to cease looting, the unrest continued for several days (New Frame, 2021).
In South Africa, with its protracted history of legislated segregation, a significant burden falls on public institutions to provide the cohesive force that fragmented social relationships could not at the time of the country's political transition in 1994. To succeed, institutions of the democratic state must be viewed as fair, transparent, and accountable, and as capable
of delivering on their core mandate to provide equitable access and redress in light of the country's deep, inherited social inequality. In South Africa, trust in public institutions represents more than an indicator of democratic consolidation; it also is an important marker for the country's vulnerability to social and political instability.
Against this background, how much do ordinary South Africans trust public institutions and their leaders?
Findings from the most recent Afrobarometer survey, carried out shortly before the July riots, show that South Africans’ trust in a variety of institutions is at its lowest since first being measured by Afrobarometer in 2006. Trust in elected representatives is especially weak, and two-thirds of respondents would be willing to forego elections if a non-elected government could provide improved security and better services.