TRUST is a critical ingredient for the legitimacy of public leaders in the eyes of society. When there is no trust between those who hold political office and the citizens, legitimacy becomes shallow. Trust helps to solidify the threads that hold society together and acts as a pillar upon which institutions that regulate political behaviour are anchored.

Disintegration of trust in societies often begins with failures of integrity in public leadership. Transitional societies such as ours require more, not less, integrity from political leaders. This is because, in transitional societies, institutional foundations that regulate political behaviour and guarantee accountability are fragile.

Advanced countries that have had an opportunity to solidify their institutions depend less on individual politicians to facilitate social progress. In such cases, institutions have an independent agency power and contain in-built disciplinary mechanisms that are triggered when politicians act contrary to acceptable norms. However, the fragility of institutions in transitional societies means political leaders, depending on whether they are transactional or transformational leaders, could make or break their societies.

Generally, institutions that mediate the relationship between leaders and citizens are founded on a social contract that has formal and informal constraints designed to limit the excesses of public officeholders. Formal constraints would, for example, be independent agencies that act against corruption. In other instances, these mechanisms would assume the form of transparent and enforceable rules that circumscribe or prescribe the behaviour of politicians.

Informal constraints, on the other hand, are codes of conduct, norms of behaviour and conventions about what is acceptable from political leadership. These may not be written down but it would be assumed that those who hold public office are motivated by a sense of honour and their interest is primarily to improve the quality of institutions, and therefore that of citizens. All of this constitutes a part of political culture.

The power of informal constraints means that if wrongdoing is detected, politicians do not wait for commissions of inquiry, but act honourably and resign. At the point at which trust between them and citizens is compromised, their ability to enhance the ethical value of institutions comes into question, as does their own legitimacy. Accordingly, public trust and legitimacy are more important than their egos.

For example, when it is suspected that those in public office have deceived the public about the use of public funds, such as in the matter of Nkandla, it is not necessary to wait for a formal investigation. A sense of honour would dictate resignation.

The implications of inaction are that formal institutions that have to be deployed to investigate the misdemeanours of cabinet ministers become weakened. Second, trust in public leadership becomes damaged. Finally, inaction undermines the legitimacy of the ruling party and promotes a political culture that is sustained by deception and tricks and appeals to Byzantine procedures aimed at keeping the public in the dark. One sign of dissipating legitimacy in the ruling party is the brandishing of the Ministerial Handbook. The abuse of this instrument is motivated by a desire to avoid public scrutiny and the need to account. Legitimate concerns of citizens are seen by the ruling party as hostile and are met with opaque procedures.

Contrary to the populist notion that legitimacy is synonymous with majoritarianism, in a pluralistic society such as SA it is much more than that. While formalist legitimacy may be derived from electoral gains, substantive legitimacy is given life through unimpeachable conduct in political office, in particular the ability to gain the trust of citizens outside of core constituencies.

If legitimacy is based only on electoral showing, it means a victorious party has an unquestioned licence to do as it pleases — which is precisely the point at which the ruling party is today.

As Robert Rotberg reminds us in his recent book, Transformative Political Leadership, "without legitimacy, effective government is impossible". It is trust-based legitimacy that lends authority its source of power. At present, the ruling party does not enjoy substantive legitimacy because there has been a failure of trust occasioned by the many acts of corruption that go unpunished; and the inability of its leadership to connect meaningfully with the public.

If we are to avoid a further slide in our political culture and turn the tide for the better, we need to seek leaders that recognise the meaning of public trust and who value substantive legitimacy. These two pillars are the cornerstones of strong institutions and taking the country forward.

• Qobo teaches politics at the University of Pretoria and is a member of the Midrand Group.