BEYOND the immediate excitement of factional battles in the ruling party and the possibility of party political change, we need to reflect deeply on the important pillars required to build an enduring future.

There are two critical pillars of our social structure whose solidity or lack thereof could make or break our future: strengthening the social infrastructure of nation-building; and conversations about the ideas and values that should underpin our future economic model. Essentially, these dialogues would ultimately aim at answering the question: what kind of shared future should we aspire to?

The leadership of the ruling party has not only run out of ideas about casting a more inspiring and shared vision of the future, it has lost credibility to act as a pivot for such conversations. Beyond influence over a narrow constituency, it lacks legitimacy to speak for a broader South African society.

But we should also consider the fact that even if the African National Congress (ANC) loses power tomorrow, we may still lack coherent answers about what needs to be done to build a different but better South Africa. Questions about our ugly social and economic realities may become persistent with the progression of time if we insist on shying away from the difficult, yet crucial conversations that we need to have at the intersections of political, civil society and personal spaces.

We have a constitution that has created the basis for building a politically inclusive and open society. It sets out a minimum framework of political values, and of rights and responsibilities of citizens. It also makes a provision for checks and balances between the different spheres of governance, as well as defining some of the key institutions important for nation-building. This does not, however, substitute for the role citizens must play in continually defining the future. It also does not take away the pivotal role of leadership in facilitating political and economic change.

Beyond our constitutional order, and beyond what happens at the polls in 2014, we need to pay a great deal of attention to the two pillars of change left half-constructed in the interregnum of the eras of presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

The first pillar on improving race relations, which was strongly associated with Mandela, was aimed at forging a shared idea of what it means to be a South African after apartheid. This project lost steam during the Mbeki years of a one-sided crusade on race. Mandela’s project was quickly overtaken by a deep sense of realism that the past did not entirely cease to exist.

Privileges and socioeconomic marginalisation continued to reproduce themselves along racial lines. The difficult relationship between the ruling party and the leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, especially during Mbeki’s time, suggested that there was no goodwill across the racial divide to shoulder the burden of political and socioeconomic change.

Quickly, Mandela’s rainbow vision was seen among black people as a gesture, though aimed at assuaging white fears, that went unreciprocated. Questions of race relations are likely to be a sore point for many years unless we create a healthy and open space for dialogue that does not seek to apportion collective guilt for the sins of the past, but is also not afraid to tackle sensitive questions about our past and present. Failure to have such a dialogue could lead to the assertion of narrow race-based and self-serving grievances that may further damage social relations.

The second conversation we need to have is about the kind of ideas and values that should underpin our economic system. We have come from an era of fascination with macroeconomic stability to microeconomic strategies that lack cohesiveness and steady leadership to champion them and take hard decisions. Under the ANC, South Africa became the most unequal society in the world, and with marginal change in the levels of unemployment from those that prevailed when the party took power in 1994.

As a country, we have floundered from one economic policy strategy to the next without results. Apart from the necessary sense of urgency that is required of those presiding over the state, a much broader dialogue on the elements required to achieve a new and more inclusive economic model is required.

Even with the obsession with pursuing economic growth, which is necessary but not sufficient for generating shared national prosperity, economic policy thinking is largely top-down and driven in the limited confines of the National Economic Development and Labour Council. There is very little conversation about the ideas required to take us forward. Building a cohesive society and generating prosperity will require more than clamour for party change. We need to engage in hard thinking and explore innovative ways to fix our social structure and make our economy work more inclusively.

• Qobo is affiliated to the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria.