Pictures: Mike Hutchings/Reuters and Antoine de Ras/The Star
JOHANNESBURG - The upcoming ANC elective conference this week presents the party with the best chance to unambiguously lay out a coherent plan to fix the economy or else the downward spiral is set to get much worse.

The gathering comes at a time when the South African economy is on a knife-edge, and therefore this is not the time for mere promises and empty rhetoric. Jobs are at stake and investors are in the dark about major policy directives on energy and state-owned enterprises, and many other important decisions have been relegated to the periphery of the frenzied succession campaign.

But it is no secret that the ANC has known for a long time that our economic engine is backfiring badly. Instead of fostering an environment that enables business to create more jobs, drive investment and put the economy on a sustainable path, the party has continued to treat business with suspicion.

That suspicion is borne out by an unfounded belief that business only cares about its own narrow interests.

As business, however, we recognise the need for the governing party to see business as a strategic ally in its quest to transform and grow the South African economy.

More red tape and convoluted policy proposals will not solve our economic paralysis. We call on the party to put the economy at the centre of its succession debate. Failure to do just that all but guarantees that whoever emerges as the new leader, he or she, will inherit an economy in even more dire straits.

The ANC urgently needs to reorder the government's priorities so that the country can begin to put more of our young people to work, help ease the complexity of starting and running a business, create an enabling environment for entrepreneurship, clean up corruption and revitalise ailing state-owned enterprises.

That is why the space for coherent and pragmatic discussions on major policy issues at this elective conference is of paramount importance. As business, we need the new ANC leadership to clearly define radical economic transformation, and help business understand what its role in this regard will be. This is a time for collective but constructive engagement.

Our hope is that the ANC can put factionalist politics aside, and see business as a key partner in the efforts to revive the economy and instil confidence.

The inability to bring clarity on key major policy issues and lack of a holistic approach towards constructively engaging business is one of our biggest shortcomings. Granted, business also has its fair share of work to align its efforts with our national priorities.

As business, we are ready to work with whoever emerges from the conference with a more coherent mandate that puts the needs of the country and its people first. Divisions and acrimony will not help us to instil confidence among investors.

Business needs a clearly defined space in which it can create jobs, help people build prosperity for themselves and enable a growing number of South Africans to become self-reliant.

The leading contenders for the ANC presidency, Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, ought to know that the power they are after will not be the arbiter of their success as leaders, but a strong and vibrant economy that serves the common interests of all South Africans.

And after the business of the elective conference is concluded, the country expects to see a more united front to tackle poverty, inequality and unemployment. These three ills are the cornerstone of most of our problems.

Not so long ago, Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba painted a very bleak picture about our macro-economic framework, forecasting a rise in the budget deficit, a jump in the nation's debt burden and slow growth in his recent mini-budget speech.

The country cannot accept that prognosis as our fate. As business, we hope that the delegates at the elective conference understand that it cannot be business as usual. There are just a lot of moving parts, which leave us on very shaky ground, and with potentially troubling consequences down the road.

We also hope that whoever emerges as the winner will find it within themselves to want to work with every constituency of the South African business community, labour and civil society.

That approach will add impetus to some of the ongoing efforts by business to boost trade, develop black business, investment and linkages across Africa and abroad.

The emerging leader will also have to deal decisively with government wastage and the deficiencies that continue to rob our state-owned enterprises of the opportunity to be strong catalysts for economic growth.

The stakes for South Africa and its people have never been as high, and this is a result of the many opportunities that the ANC has let go to waste in the 23 years in power. In the days ahead, the party can either choose to move South Africa forward or be remembered as a party that abandoned its responsibility to govern with moral clarity and stood in the way of progress.

So, as the world awaits the outcome of this make-or-break elective conference, it is important to remind ourselves that in the end South Africa is bigger than the sum total of the divisions or factions within the ANC.

The party merely faces a moment of truth that would determine the course of events for the next five years, depending on the kind of leadership that it puts forward. Business hopes that it will be the kind of leadership that can build a strong, dynamic and prosperous country.

To offer anything else, that will mean more paralysis and more missed opportunities to advance the socio-economic ideals of our constitution. In the final analysis, the elective conference is an opportunity for the ANC to renew its compact with South Africa.

Even so, the ultimate test is not so much about who wins, but about whether South Africa can once again put its economic house in order or risk bleak prospects.

Joan Warburton-McBride is the chief executive of the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

- BUSINESS REPORT