AS WE enter the last month of 2015, we must brace ourselves for the year ahead. It is going to be tough. I am not by nature a scaremonger or doomsayer. I have always been optimistic about the future of this country, even through our darkest years when a race war loomed. But I want to sound the alert that next year is going to be the most challenging year since our liberation from apartheid. I do so because I believe the country, its people and its leaders are sleepwalking towards a crisis.

It’s an economic crisis. We are spending and wasting too much money and earning too little. The national coffers are running towards empty. The auditor-general tells us another R25.7bn has just been wasted. Sometime this coming year, the international ratings agencies are going to give us junk status ratings.

That will make it almost impossible to borrow money. Already, the interest we are paying on loans constitutes the largest expenditure item on our national budget. Without further borrowing, the Treasury will simply run out of money. That is when governments have to start abandoning development projects and cutting back on maintenance. And along that road is a point at which a government finds it doesn’t have enough money to pay salaries. That, as even the doziest sleepwalker must realise, is when real trouble erupts.

We are on that road. We haven’t reached crisis point yet, but we are hurtling towards it at an alarming rate. The trouble is that neither President Jacob Zuma nor the African National Congress (ANC) seem aware of what is happening.

Zuma can’t see it because he is out of his depth in economic matters. And the ANC can’t see it because it is too preoccupied with the looming succession issue. Zuma has established a patronage administration of loyalists to protect himself from the implications of his involvement in the arms deal and Nkandla scandals. Now those loyalists are worrying about what will happen to them when Zuma’s term ends.

The choice of successor seems to have boiled down to either Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa or Zuma’s former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. For anyone concerned about who can dig us out of the economic hole we are in, I would have thought the choice was obvious. Ramaphosa is the one with economic savvy. Dlamini-Zuma has none that I know of.

But the scared loyalists are pushing for Dlamini-Zuma. Never mind that as health minister, she was involved with former president Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denialism, with endorsing an industrial solvent called Virodene as a quack remedy against HIV infection, and with the controversial AIDS play Sarafina II that cost the country an outrageous R22m. The loyalists want her because they hope that, despite the divorce, she will establish something of a Zuma dynasty that will continue to protect them as well as her former husband.

As for Zuma himself, his lack of perception is not confined to economics: it is equally lacking in his inability to project a clear political course for the country. I am indebted to Business Day’s Insider column for an explanation of national policy that he gave at the recent Congress of South African Trade Unions congress.

“We operate under capitalism,” Zuma told the trade unionists. “The system. The system. The national democratic democracies are not the system — are some system within a system. That’s why, if that is the situation, the crisis after crisis of the system will affect you whether you like it or not because if there is economic crisis it affects everyone within the system — the global system that is operating. In other words, it’s a class divided society.”

Interpreting that gobbledegook is a challenge, but what I think Zuma was trying to say was: “We socialists (democratic democracies) are having to operate within a global capitalist system, and are subject to its uncertainties.” And there lies the rub.

Under Zuma, the ANC has become an ideological hybrid, with a capitalist finance minister and Marxist-Leninist ministers of economic development and trade and industry. The result is gridlock. The administration cannot function as a unit with clear direction. So nothing is achieved. The country wallows in a trough of inertia while the problems mount.

The other problem with Zuma’s tortuous diagnosis is that it is self-exculpatory. None of SA’s problems are internally created: they all come from outside. They are the global system’s fault, not Zuma’s or the ANC’s. So presumably there is nothing we can do to about it until the great international revolution removes “the system”.

Because of Zuma’s — and other ANC members’ — years of immersion in Marxist-Leninist doctrine, they have failed to see that the logical incorporation of socialist needs into a capitalist system is through social democracy. As the Nordic countries show, you need a strong private sector to generate the tax revenue to fund a healthy social security system. The ANC has labelled itself a social democratic party, but seems to have lost track of what that means.

The trouble with Zuma and his administration is that their inbred anticapitalism makes them hostile to business. Instead of encouraging capital investment, both domestic and foreign, to create the jobs and tax revenue we so badly need, they disregard it almost to the point of antagonism. They regard foreign investors as exploiters who are extorting our workers and taking the profits gleaned from our resources out of the country. And they regard domestic capitalists as apartheid collaborators and economic exploiters from the past.

These are attitudes from the past that have stalled our progress and are now leading us towards economic crisis. And I believe we are not going to avoid that crisis as long as Zuma remains president. We cannot afford to have him at the top for another three years. He must go.

Hopefully the shock the ANC is in for at next year’s local government elections will jolt it into realising this. The longer Zuma remains number one, the greater the chances of the country landing in a full-blown economic crisis and of the ANC being blown away at the 2019 national election.

The sticking point is Zuma’s fear of those multiple charges of corruption coming back to ensnare him the moment he leaves office. The way to overcome that is to devise a soft exit strategy for him.

All that is required is for the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA) to reach an agreement to amend the Constitution to empower the new president to grant Zuma amnesty for those issues, as former US president Gerald Ford did for Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal. Jointly, the two parties have the votes to do that. Zuma can then retire quietly to Nkandla while a new regime gets down to fixing the country.

The DA may object to this idea. But just as governing parties must sometimes place the national interest ahead of party interests, so too must the opposition.

Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail