Are politicians helping us trust them?

“We need, as a nation, at this time more than any other, to reveal our true character.

We need to work together and leave no one behind”. – (Pres Cyril Ramaphosa, SONA, Feb 2023)


Integrity is consistency of character. Integrity is a necessity for trust.

If I know your character and know that you are operating in good faith, we can engage meaningfully.

But what if a leader does most things right, with seeming integrity, but fails knowingly and purposefully in one area? Does this one thing undermine their integrity?

I was faced with this question after President Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address on the 9th of February 2023. He was mostly saying things that, even though they may be difficult to achieve, are aligned with the interests of most South Africans and the principles of our Constitution. I believe that he truly wishes for these things to be achieved and that he is speaking with integrity.

Even when speaking about other countries, he said things that align with the spirit of humanity and dignity enshrined in the Constitution.  Among others: “We remain deeply concerned about the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and urge all parties to cease hostilities and seek a peaceful solution through dialogue.”

This is where we find the big inconsistency.  While saying this, South Africa has chosen under his leadership, to participate in a naval exercise with Russia. He had previously made statements about our neutrality in the ‘conflict’, but now he is openly choosing sides with the aggressor.

(I am aware that others might have spotted their own inconsistencies. This was to me the most glaring disconnect between what is said and what is done.)

Does it signal bad faith? Assuming that we see him as being an independent moral agent and not merely a pawn of others, at the very least it signals inconsistency of character.

I don’t think it can be seen as just a slip of integrity. We all make mistakes from time to time, and when we do we have the opportunity to admit our error and change our ways.  This is part of moral growth.

But in this case, it is a calculated decision. It must have been discussed at length and yet the decision is to follow a route which is at odds with his character.

One could cynically argue that trust is not that important for a political leader. However, President Ramaphosa continuously referred to social partners and social compacts.

He (ironically?) makes the following statement towards the end of the SONA speech:

“A nation’s true character is revealed in times of crisis.

A nation is defined by how its people meet the gravest of difficulties – whether they work together and confront their challenges as one, united by a common purpose, or whether they surrender to the problems before them.”

He deeply understands that we need to work together to solve our problems and that this collaboration towards social goals is precisely why trust is so important, especially to a politician.

But inconsistent actions invariably break down trust and make collaboration difficult.

The logic works like this: before the inconsistency, I was able to predict your actions to be in good faith, but now I am no longer sure.  Rather than spending all my energy in collaborating with you, I now have to spend some of that energy looking after my interests, because I do not trust that you are dealing in good faith.  I don’t understand what drives your actions, and it may very well soon go against me.  Or against things that are important to me.

Social capital is the trust that we have in our society between various social partners. If trust is high, we can work together.  If not, we all scamper to our corners to protect our interests.

Perhaps if I knew better what pressures the President is facing politically, it would be easier to accept and trust that he still is dealing in good faith.

I sometimes try to remember that we have politics instead of war, and in all instances, we would rather have bad politics than a good war. This means that we must probably forgive some of the messiness of politics.

In our very divided world, no one knows which levers to pull to get the best outcomes for all.  If you improve one thing it seems that invariably there are negative consequences elsewhere.  If you focus on the short-term, the long-term declines, and vice versa.  It’s all a balancing act.

But if I know that what your character is, and I know that you are at least trying to lead to the best outcome for everyone, including me, then I can work with you without boundaries, trusting that together we can achieve a better life for all.

In this time of social media and global divisions, most leaders are however playing to the gallery. They only say what the voters (or funders) want them to say. Which is exactly why it is so difficult to trust anyone.  Leaders are not displaying consistency of character.  They are not displaying their character at all.  They are impossible to know and therefore impossible to trust.

Perhaps because they are already balancing the interests of so many voters, funders, and allies, it is virtually impossible for them to be consistent. Perhaps they have lost individual agency in their public personas and are doing the best they can.

Perhaps we should lower our standards and still believe in the glimmers of integrity that we see. We should be glad that for the most part, we have a leader who has a positive societal agenda rather than a criminal one. The very fact that we are talking about individual inconsistencies of character rather than simply a bad character is perhaps something to be thankful for.

At the same time, we can surely be a bit more idealistic and hope for leaders who show their character and show it to be consistent.  To paraphrase the words of President Ramaphosa himself: “true character is revealed in times of crisis”.

I have the feeling that in this time of crisis, I would prefer to see more of the President’s character than the results of his balancing acts.


About the author: Kris Dobie is a Senior Manager: Organisational Ethics at The Ethics Institute