Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS/STEFANIE LOOS
Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS/STEFANIE LOOS

AT THE end of last year, SA was third from the top on a list that no country should want to rank highly on — the world’s worst-performing currencies. With the rand 25% down against the dollar for the year, SA came in just behind economic basket cases Argentina and Brazil.

The ignominy of being in that company ought to be a clear signal to the African National Congress (ANC) ahead of its traditional January 8 birthday statement of what ails SA. The rand has been affected by global factors including monetary policy liftoff in the US, the slowdown in China and the rout in commodity markets.

But as in Argentina and Brazil, the major part of our woes are of our own making. Party infighting, parastatal plundering and lack of coherent economic policy have contributed to the malaise that has seen the growth rate stuck in the 1% range and investors and rating agencies turn negative.

And that was even before the three-finance-ministers-in-less-than-a-week debacle on which SA ended the year.

That catastrophe was brought about by the president of the ANC and of SA, Jacob Zuma, and his faction of the party, but the entire party must take the blame.

SA goes into 2016 facing yet another year of weak economic growth and a probable downgrade of its sovereign credit ratings. That will make it impossible to improve living standards for the majority of the population or to tackle unemployment or poverty to any significant extent. Indeed, chances are the plight of many citizens will get worse. And the government will be constrained in its ability to deliver better services ahead of local elections. The ANC is under much pressure as it is at risk of losing some metropolitan municipalities and its support is likely to be eroded by the opposition — at least in urban areas. Therefore, it can’t simply regurgitate the same rhetoric on January 8. It has no chance of delivering a better life for all unless it boosts the economy.

A strong commitment to growing the economy should, therefore, be at the centre of its programme. But that would require far-reaching and radical changes not only to policies, but to party politics. As long as the attitude towards the economy and the private sector is ambivalent and resentful, neither the ANC nor the government will be able to do what’s required to fix the economy and turn around sentiment among investors and rating agencies.

The ANC needs to rethink its stubborn attitude of putting the party ahead of SA and the economy. It needs to think too about the cities and how they are governed and run. Cities are crucial for service delivery and a bedrock of the real economy because that’s where the bulk of gross domestic product is generated and business done. Councils with chaotic finances, qualified audits and endemic corruption won’t help the party deliver better services or more jobs.

It is less than encouraging that Mr Zuma has made Desmond van Rooyen minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, after ousting him from his brief stint as finance minister.

Mr van Rooyen didn’t cover himself in glory as mayor of Merafong. Just as Mr Zuma evidently didn’t care about the economy when he installed Mr van Rooyen as finance minister, he and the ANC may be seen as caring little about municipalities with Mr van Rooyen heading that portfolio.

The ANC statement needs to repair some of that damage.

But statements are meaningless unless the party offers evidence that it wants to do right by SA and not allow the economy, local government and governance generally to sink deeper into malaise.

Its birthday offers the ANC a timely opportunity for it to demonstrate that it has learnt lessons from recent missteps like a mature party should.

We fear the opportunity is likely to be squandered. But we would be delighted to be proved wrong.