WHAT are the essential differences between countries that succeed in becoming sustainable democracies, with growing economies, and those that don't?
How can we ensure that South Africa does not follow the trajectory of cronyism, corruption and the criminal state?
I spent a lot of time thinking about these questions. We know there have been more transition failures on our continent than successes.
All failed transitions begin with power abuse. A good constitution, on its own, cannot prevent this. Indeed, power abuse usually begins with an assault on the constitution and this can happen without changing a single word of it.
It happens when rulers turn the independent institutions of the constitution into extensions of their power.
If the constitution cannot, on its own, prevent us from becoming a failed state, what can?
The only guarantee of success is citizens who understand that they are personally responsible for preventing power abuse. These citizens understand the power of their vote and use it to protect the constitution and hold their leaders to account. For a democracy to work, the politicians must fear the voters, not the other way around.
Are we moving in the right or the wrong direction? The signs are both good and bad.
Take Kannaland, a district municipality in the Karoo where a by-election was held and Civics Organisation of South Africa's Jeffrey Donson won.
A former schoolteacher, Donson has long been known for his predilection for young girls. After leaving education for politics, he rose through the ranks to become the mayor of Kannaland.
In 2008 he lost his council seat when he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. This was later reduced to a suspended sentence on appeal.
Three weeks later Donson stood as a candidate in a by-election to get his seat back. The voters re-elected him.
Donson lost his seat again at the end of last year when he was found guilty of malpractice and corruption during his tenure as mayor.
Undeterred, he stood once again in the by-election to fill the vacancy that arose after his dismissal. And again, the voters re-elected him.
When this happens, nothing deters politicians from corruption and power abuse.
The accountability deficit is the biggest threat to our young democracy.
It is not limited to small towns in the Karoo.
Limpopo has been much in the news because of the endemic corruption that is the inevitable consequence of the power abuse inherent in the ANC's version of economic empowerment.
It enables the ANC in government to award tenders to the ANC in business to enrich the ANC's leaders. That is how companies, of which Julius Malema is a director or major shareholder, got tenders to the value of R140million. Three bridges they constructed washed away in a matter of months.
According to Sello Moloto, the former Limpopo premier, Malema "got those tenders by intimidating mayors and municipal managers that they would lose their jobs if they did not approve the appointments of his companies".
Malema did this with the help of his ally Cassel Mathale who, as the ANC's provincial chairperson in Limpopo, had the power to appoint mayors and deploy municipal managers.
The mayors and municipal managers of Limpopo obviously fear Malema and Mathale more than they fear the voters.
Malema expects to be re-elected unanimously as the president of the ANC Youth League later this year, and from that point on he will continue his campaign for the country's top job.
He believes he can reach his goal - even though he treats voters with complete contempt.
He exemplifies the accountability gap. He flaunts his millionaire lifestyle, with his R250000 Breitling watch and R800000 car, even as he proclaims he is a "humble man" as he did at his 29th birthday celebrations (which cost at least R400000) last week.
Speaking at his party, Malema said: "I'm still living in poverty today, because as long as a neighbour of mine is struggling, I too am struggling."
Without a hint of irony, he then popped the cork of an R800 bottle of Moët et Chandon champagne.
This perfectly captures the fundamental contradictions of the ANC under President Jacob Zuma.
While it pretends to be the voice of the poor, its ruling clique makes billions from state contracts.
While it pretends to be the voice of the powerless, its leaders abuse their power for their own ends.
It is a kleptocratic elite masquerading as a political party.
And it happens because the majority of voters allow it - even encourage it.
It is our primary duty to get this message across if we want to secure South Africa's transition to democracy and prevent the failed state. We must do so, not because winning power is an end in itself, but because it is essential to establish the principle and practice of accountability in our young democracy.
If people do not like the alternative we offer, there is no shortage of others.
l The writer is the leader of the DA