PONDERING the state of South African politics, many believe that a fresh political alternative is what is needed to invigorate our democracy and put the country back on a sound footing. This school of thought believes the missing ingredient is the quality of the men and women leading our political institutions.

They may be right, but is it enough?

Even in the context of African National Congress politics there is an obsession with re-educating members in the old traditions of the organisation. This is admirable and may help, but also falls hopelessly short of conceiving what South Africa will need to grow into a nation leading the world in years to come.

We have a state that battles to complete basic tasks, political elites that often play a deeply polarising role and different sectors of society that are at war with one another. While there is much talk about social dialogue, it largely remains confined to dealing with the trivia of policy. There is no central, uniting idea that makes a powerful emotional connection with citizens from across the social and political spectrum while being sufficiently realistic to translate into tangible actions.

But why are we in such a state of listlessness?

Among several reasons, the most central is the manner in which post-1994 South African society has been organised.

We are bound together by a constitution whose most critical provisions are largely rejected or misunderstood by many South Africans. The death penalty would be likely to be reinstated in a referendum and the state would be given the power to confiscate land without compensation and give it to black people. There are also many who see homosexuality as an abomination and would not protest too much if gay South Africans were afforded less rights than those of heterosexual location. There are also those who wish the executive or legislature could overrule the judiciary.

There is a professed belief in fighting all forms of discrimination such as racism, sexism and others. We do badly at fulfilling this promise too — with even those in the corridors of power and influence displaying a particularly hypocritical streak.

Depending on the audience they address, or whether or not they are in the company of their ilk, they will verbalise vile racism, sexism and homophobia.

With such attitudes towards the constitution, there is little or nothing that binds the country together into a coherent nation.

As economic and social circumstances become more challenging for many South Africans, polarisation is common in particular along racial and class lines.

It is not unusual for powerful political entrepreneurs to launch self-serving, acerbic attacks on the black middle class for daring to comment unfavourably about the ruling elite. It is also common for the same politicians to launch racially charged attacks on so-called white capital while accepting back-handers in the form of lucrative business opportunities from the same purported enemy.

They use their proximity to power in the ruling party and the state as a lever to gain access to these opportunities, while fooling the public into believing they are in a war on behalf of the poorer classes.

In short, the convergence point of political, business and social interest of the elite is nothing more than a marketplace in which influences get traded for personal gain under the guise of social consensus. This situation is unsustainable and needs to change if this country is to achieve the level of the cohesion required to make great strides in social, scientific and economic development.

The national philosophical endeavour the country should strive for is a clear set of ideas which sets out what the country and its people should aspire to be, the institutions needed to support these ideas and what ethos such institutions should follow.

These should form the basis of a strong national philosophical centre to which most sectors in society feel drawn.

As a result, the areas of extreme disagreement between different social sectors would be few, and so would those who take extreme positions on critical issues.

Such a broad consensus greatly reduces attempts by different sectors and actors to delegitimise critical institutions that are meant to weld this country together.

Such behaviour is destructive and sends a worrying message that institutions of state are to be respected only when they agree with certain political or ideological interests.

South Africa’s philosophical foundation should also go as far as trying to describe the archetypal South African which young people should aspire to being. It must inculcate strong open democratic values, solid ethical foundations, individual care for the other, and an attitude to work and success that results in a powerful national competitive spirit with no patience for laziness, mediocrity and the prevalent culture of entitlement.

To succeed, such an endeavour needs a strong political figure and centre whose charisma and gravitas appeal across class and race, and whose personal ethos resonates with the majority of South Africans.

They must have the ability and confidence to surround themselves with men and women of significant intellectual depth so they can successfully articulate the vision and transform it into practical ideas citizens find easy to understand and support.

We have to pursue this because a society such as ours, which is held together by a constitution we hardly understand, often disagree with and whose institutions are being destroyed by the very people meant to protect and strengthen them, is untenable.

The grand plans contained in the National Development Plan will not be realised when different sectors continue to work to destroy each other and there is no central, uniting idea that helps South Africans overcome some of their narrow interests for greater national and social good.

Countries ruled by benign dictatorships have managed to walk this path with a degree of success.

SA is a democracy in which people cannot be forced to participate in things they do not wish to support, in particular where the poverty of the ideas behind them is so apparent.

That is why this must be premised on winning the trust and confidence of the population, and on the production of evidence that what is being espoused is the right thing — and that it will succeed.

This confidence can arise only from trust in the political system and its actors, which is glaringly absent right now.

Many have warned that South Africa is sitting on a powder keg. Increasingly, people are retreating to racial and ideological laagers whose premise is making others the problem. There is much talk about "change", but this means vastly different things to different people. Even when some political change materialises, it will be as hotly contested as the status quo, absorbing and dissipating energy that should otherwise go to a focused, nation-building effort grounded in ideas and strong, respected institutions.

The first step for South Africa is to recognise that the status quo is a transitional arrangement whose destination is unclear and needs urgent definition.

To reach its ultimate goals, it will have to dispense with a lot of what is now familiar and make a fresh start. That is as hard and long a journey as it gets, but not to start would be a tragedy in the making.

• Zibi is with the Midrand Group.