MANGAUNG has come and gone. South Africa and the international investor and diplomatic communities got reassuring messages on policy direction from the ruling party.

The African National Congress (ANC) largely showed itself to be a maturing party of government worthy to be trusted with running the affairs of Africa’s strongest and most dynamic economy. The open contest for leadership positions and the grace with which defeat was accepted is indicative of the maturity and statesmanship of ANC leaders.

This must be a good lesson for most of the country’s opposition parties, which struggle to have an orderly change of leadership. South African politics will be a robust affair next year as the buildup to the 2014 national general elections gains momentum.

It is now time to go back to work. The global economy remains in a shaky state. As does the local economy. From an economic perspective, South Africa is in a much better state than some of its counterparts in Europe and elsewhere in the world. It has more opportunities and platforms to advance growth, create jobs and alleviate poverty. These must be leveraged to the maximum.

South Africa needs to ramp up its economy to be in line with other high-growth emerging market economies. This requires strategies and concrete actions to unleash the country’s full growth and development potential.

The local economy needs to be placed on a job-rich, high and inclusive growth trajectory sooner rather than later. Job creation and high inclusive growth should be the number one priorities for the new leadership of the ANC and President Jacob Zuma’s administration.

Zuma has been given an unequivocal mandate by his party. This presents him with an opportunity to lead South Africa to greatness. He needs to articulate and drive a compelling vision at the core of which must be positioning South Africa as a great and admired nation.

Ensuring a brighter future for all South Africans requires the right policies, systems, people and institutions to be deployed to do the right things at the right time and right place all the time. Zuma will serve his country and party well by driving a new culture of focused and disciplined execution in every sphere of government, the economy and society at large. This can and must be done.

That is how Singapore, Japan and China have leapfrogged first-world countries. South Africa can do so too. All that is required is saying no to mediocrity, corruption and incompetence.

South Africa needs to embrace a new ethos of excellence in every sphere of society as a defining feature of what it means to be South African. This would, among other things, need a significant turnaround of the education system to enhance the quality and quantity of our human capital by producing world-class knowledge workers underpinning the economy.

South Africa’s significant exposure to the crisis-ridden eurozone means that we must find ways of mitigating and minimising any adverse effect of a potential worsening of the situation as European leaders dither while their economies are burning.

In the medium to long term, South Africa needs to diversify its trade and investment exposure to minimise reliance on one dominant country or region. There are huge opportunities to deepen trade and investment ties with Africa, Asia and Latin America.

South Africa should not allow China and other countries to dominate African economies. It should be the leading force in Africa. Not a follower.

Economic growth and job creation have to be the national strategic priorities of the new ANC leadership. This needs a number of things to be prioritised as part of the national agenda.

First, the pursuit of global competitiveness as a key national objective is paramount. The World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report ranked South Africa the 52nd most competitive economy in the world. We need to set a target to be among the world’s top 10 most competitive economies within the next 10 years.

All policies need to be realigned to attain that objective, which should be measured and monitored in a systematic and coherent way. Ministers and government officials as well as business and civil society leaders, and universities need to be measured, rewarded or penalised based on their contribution to this national goal.

I believe that if we unlock South Africa’s full competitive potential, we can find enduring solutions to the socioeconomic challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The countries that are most competitive tend to have less poverty, less unemployment and less inequality than those that are less competitive.

Second, the new ANC leadership needs to focus on strengthening institutions of delivery, oversight and governance. Without efficacious institutions at all levels of government, we run the risk of sleepwalking into mediocrity.

Third, a new culture of meritocracy is needed to underpin all state functions. There is a need to focus on lifelong learning for all public servants to ensure that they are able to cope with the challenges of a continuously changing world.

Even those people who are deployed as cadres of the ruling party to key posts should be given access to world-class training on a continuous basis to ensure that they are on top of their briefs. The Chinese have done that very well. South Africa can as well.

Fourth, infrastructure development is an area of opportunity for the country to create jobs and grow the economy. More decisiveness and speed of execution is what is needed here to unlock the more than R1-trillion worth of infrastructure build programmes over the next five years.

Zuma was magnanimous in victory when he sounded a call for unity and respect for those of his comrades who unsuccessfully contested leadership position. That was a good call indeed.

The ANC needs to focus on unifying its forces if it is to successfully take on the opposition and win at the forthcoming 2014 general elections.

The opposition is likely to gang up against the ANC to target electorally vulnerable provinces and capitalise on opinion polls, which, in some instances, reflect an erosion of support for the ruling party.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s return to the top six officials as deputy president of the party is good for the ANC, South Africa and Africa at large as it further strengthens Zuma’s administration as one embracing all talents and persuasions. It is further significant in that it provides a clear indication of succession when Zuma’s term comes to an end in 2017. Ramaphosa is now the clear front-runner to be South Africa’s next president.

Business and the international investor community value certainty and predictability. It is vital for the ruling party to continuously provide that.

• Dlamini is a member of the National Council of the SA Institute of International Affairs at Wits