IN ONE of my last columns of last year, I said that the Mangaung conference of the African National Congress (ANC) would be about organisational issues, policy and leadership.

What I forgot was that it would also be about personalities. In this regard, the biggest winners were President Jacob Zuma, former Gauteng MEC Humphrey Memezi and the fresh prince of Luthuli House, Cyril Ramaphosa. The biggest losers were Tokyo Sexwale, Fikile Mbalula and Paul Mashatile. In the nonpersonality category, radical policy content was the biggest loser and the biggest winners big business, investors, the markets and rating agencies.

In the Useful Idiots of Mangaung category, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party took top honours. Some believe this award will go to Ramaphosa in 2017. Not to be outdone, political commentators outpaced the media and won the unanimous support of conference delegates in the So-Called Analysts and Intellectuals category. I still do not know where to place Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. Disguised as a presidential candidate, he went to Mangaung without a faction when, in reality, he went there to retire.

When the conference started, I was still of the firm belief that not much would change irrespective of whether it was Zuma, Motlanthe or that astute politician, Donald Duck, who won the presidential race. For me, what was critical was whether the ANC would be stable enough after Mangaung to implement what the conference decided. Given that I was wrong about the margin of Zuma’s victory, is it not possible that I was also wrong about the capacity of the ANC government to deliver, as Zuma seems to have much more support than we expected? Because the ANC seems more united now behind Zuma than it was after the Polokwane conference, we must not rule out the possibility that the strong mandate he and his faction received will be translated into effective delivery by the government after next year’s general election.

This, of course, will depend on whether the outcome of the Mangaung conference signals the possibility of a qualitative improvement, or the deepening of the leadership, strategic, intellectual and moral decline that some among us erroneously thought was a concern only among the middle and chattering classes. Realistically, it is too early to tell if it is the Zumaphobes or the sycophantic zealots who are right about the meaning of Mangaung. I hope I was wrong because our people can ill-afford another seven years of the gap between what is promised and what is actually delivered by the government.

While radical economic policy content was conspicuous by its absence at the conference, the real challenge is to implement the policy framework that was adopted.

If this happens, it will go a long way towards changing the lot of our people for the better.

But the decision by Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) to close four of its shafts for "long-term maintenance", and the angry response of the ANC and its government, may be an indication of things to come if, as a country, we fail to find a cure for the deficit of trust and confidence between the government and business, on the one hand, and labour and business on the other. The ANC did a lot to allay the fears of big business, investors and the markets. The last thing the ruling party expected was what, to it, must have felt like a kick in the teeth so soon after electing Ramaphosa to the deputy presidency of the ANC and after the adoption of an unthreatening economic policy framework.

The ANC expelled Malema, rejected the idea of mine nationalisation, affirmed its commitment to the idea of a mixed economy and embraced the National Development Plan as the centrepiece of its strategic plan in the hope that business would respond with an ANC-friendly attitude.

The Amplats retrenchments saga is an indication of how difficult it is going to be for the ANC to balance the interests of big business against the aspirations of ANC voters.

• Matshiqi is a research fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation.