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In assessing the health of democracies, it is impossible to ignore the concept of citizen trust in public institutions. Trust is a cornerstone of democratic legitimacy, triggering citizens’ willingness to contribute to a strong and robust democracy: Citizens who trust their government are more willing to listen and render support to government policies aimed at improving the country (Government Communication and Information System, 2014).

Scholars have traced public trust in institutions to a number of factors, focusing variously on the structure and management of institutions, on public perceptions of officials who manage the institutions, and on institutional performance (Coleman, 1990; Dasgupta, 1988; Sall, 2015). Miller and Listhaug (1990) argue that poor economic performance can contribute to undermining trust in government. A related and important aspect of trust is the perception of official corruption, which can have a negative effect on the performance of political institutions and public confidence in them (Anderson & Tverdova, 2003; Della Porta, 2000).

In South Africa, where economic difficulties and the Nkandla corruption case were making headlines at the time of the latest Afrobarometer survey in August-September 2015, both performance and perceived corruption could be contributory factors to a dramatic drop in public trust. Survey findings show that citizens’ trust in the president has dropped by almost half since 2011, from 62% to 34%, its second-lowest level since the first survey in 2000. Trust in members of Parliament (MPs), provincial premiers, local government councils, the ruling party, and opposition parties has also declined dramatically, making political leaders the least-trusted public officials in the country. Trust in the president is lowest of all 18 institutions and leaders that the survey asked about.

Among state institutions, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the police, and courts of law lost trust over the past four years. Trust in the tax department (South African Revenue Services, or SARS), the Office of the Public Protector, and the National Prosecuting Authority remained stable. The broadcast media enjoys high public trust; the independent broadcasting service is the only one of the 18 institutions to enjoy a major increase in trust, climbing from 69% in 2011 to 79%.

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