DELEGATES from the ANC branches go into their elective conference this weekend in Mangaung with a heavy responsibility on their shoulders.

In their minds will be not just the issues related to the election of a new president and party leadership, but also questions about the state of their party as it celebrates its centenary.

Never since 1994 has the ANC been under such sustained attack, with a wide range of people and organisations expressing deep concerns about the future of the ruling party. Business people, trade unionists, religious leaders, academics, civil society and party stalwarts have entered the fray.

Perhaps the words which should most concern the delegates are those from sympathetic voices like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and others who fought within or alongside the ANC for so many years and whose commitment to the ideals of the Freedom Charter is beyond question.

The frivolous spending of public money at Nkandla, the school textbooks fiasco and the rot in the education system, widespread corruption across the public service, and the spread of a pernicious and potentially lethal authoritarianism are some of the common concerns.

But these are symptoms of a deeper problem: the ANC no longer has a project.

The party which was set up to fight racism and injustice is floundering. The contradictions in its transformation programme have just been starkly highlighted, ironically enough, on the mines and the farms where the apartheid state sourced its strength.

The struggle for true equality has been corrupted into a struggle to stay in power, a struggle in which citizens have been made into voters to be wooed, opponents to be paid off or threatened (or worse), or passive recipients of “services” which, almost by definition, will never be adequate. The fault lines in the country are the same as they have always been; the rich are still rich, the poor are mostly still poor.

Whoever wins at Mangaung, things cannot go on in this way in the ANC much longer. Whoever the next president is, he – and it will be a he – must have the courage to make some difficult decisions, annoy some powerful people and offer the party and the country some real leadership.

The time for trying to please everyone is over.