AFRICAN National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma’s state of the party address, delivered on Saturday more confidently than in any of the previous five years of his leadership, created the impression of a man riding the crest of a wave.
In some respects, that is an accurate picture. Mr Zuma was recently re-elected to lead the ANC for a second term, with his main challengers falling by the wayside one by one until he was left to romp to a reasonably comfortable victory. Many party members may still harbour misgivings about his leadership, but in the absence of a convincing alternative they have thrown their weight behind him.
Having tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa in his corner as deputy president is clearly a boon — the former National Union of Mineworkers general secretary is a canny politician whose influence and communication skills were already to be seen in the ANC’s charm offensive in Durban before Mr Zuma’s address.
With ambivalent former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe sidelined, firm ANC foes Tokyo Sexwale and Julius Malema smacked down, the ANC Youth League tamed and another five-year term as president of the party — and, almost certainly, the country — in the bag, Mr Zuma is indeed on a high.
The difficulty he and the ANC face is maintaining this momentum. The crest of a wave is an exhilarating place to be, as long as you have the skill to avoid the rocks, and foresight to know to kick out before you hit the beach.
Charm, rhetoric and playing competing factional interests off against each other, not to mention a large dollop of luck, got Mr Zuma and the ANC through his first term. But it will not be enough for him, the party or SA to survive another five years without fracturing. SA is crying out for wise and decisive leadership to overcome the social and economic obstacles that lie ahead. The time for consulting and planning is over; the next five years must be about clear vision, coherent policy and efficient implementation.
Are Mr Zuma and the new ANC leadership up to the job? We have our doubts, not because there is a shortage of able individuals in the party’s upper echelons, but because the tripartite alliance is no longer capable of pulling in one direction. Over the next few years, the choice for ANC leaders will be between governing in a manner that allows the country to progress, or in a manner that maintains the unity of the alliance.
It is encouraging that both at the ANC’s electoral conference in Mangaung last month and in his weekend address in Durban, Mr Zuma placed great emphasis on the implementation of the National Development Plan and tackling the sticking points that have held up land reform and job creation. If Mr Ramaphosa is to be believed, Mr Zuma has been transformed since Mangaung from the Great Procrastinator to "Action Man".
We shall see. And so, too, will the investment community. Ratings agency Fitch downgraded SA’s long-term foreign currency credit rating on Thursday, citing a deterioration in the country’s economic growth that is likely to affect public finances and could worsen social and political tensions. It also noted a decline in SA’s competitiveness caused by wage settlements well above productivity increases, infrastructure constraints and a widening current account deficit.
The Treasury has said it is already addressing Fitch’s concerns and that the medium-term budget framework "demonstrates government’s unambiguous commitment to maintaining debt and expenditure growth within sustained levels". To be fair, the agency did place SA on a stable credit outlook, which indicates it was more of a warning shot to the powers that be than an alarm signal to investors.
Mr Zuma fought hard for his second term. Now that it is his, he had better be prepared to make it count, even if that means alienating political allies.