2019 marks a quarter century of democratic rule in SA. Much has changed since then, especially technologically driven advances that have accelerated the exchange of ideas, much like the ones below. SA has also made its mark on the world since Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, be it from entertainment and sport, to business and politics, to technology and science.

But some things haven't.

White male faces still fill the halls of industry, while the majority of South Africans struggle to cover basic costs. Voters will still cast their ballots on paper come May 8th and, what else? oh - the ANC is still in charge.

25 years may seem a long time for a democratic country (after all the author of this poorly written rant is its senior by only two years), but in political terms, the country still has a long way to go. And what better time to take stock than a few weeks before the most important yet least inspiring democratic election since the iconic queues of 1994.

For any young country on the cusp of maturity, the question of how much SA's democracy has been consolidated is a useful yard stick to determine how far we have come. Perhaps in SA's case the questions would be how far we could have been.

Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan wrote in the 1990s that there are a handful of boxes that need to be checked in order for a democracy to be considered “consolidated”. But for the sake of brevity, a consolidated democracy, as the authors put it, is when democracy has become “the only game in town”. That means that all political, economic and social actors accept and operate within the constitutional framework provided.

Among those requirements is an independent and lively civil society. While politicians may have grown indifferent to the inputs by the myriad organisations in this country, they have not forgotten their role. Civil society organisations have perhaps played the single most important role in keeping SA from falling apart — be it from representing victims of crimes in court, to hosting rallies or providing basic assistance, to dragging politicians or business leaders to court.

This should go hand in hand with a lively political society, and while the two disagree often, they also complement each other from time to time. In SA ‘lively’ not only refers to the level of noise that political parties make, but also their freedom to “compete for the legitimate right to exercise control over public power”.

Then there is the economic society. This is the arena, perhaps due to a lack of elections, that is primarily still dominated by a small group of mostly white men.

Linz and Stepan argue a consolidated democracy needs a “nontrivial degree of market autonomy” and that “ownership diversity in the economy is necessary to produce the independence and liveliness of civil society that allow it to make its contribution to a democracy.”

They further believe there needs to be a balance between the public and private sectors, saying the state cannot have a monopoly over the market and decisions regarding pricing and regulation. At the same time, Linz and Stepan argued, “If a democracy never produced policies that generated government-mandated public goods in the areas of education, health, and transportation, and never provided some economic safety net for its citizens and some alleviation of gross economic inequality, democracy would not be sustainable.”

But after 25 years, the market remains heavily concentrated, and includes some of the richest people on the continent who share offices with some of the poorest. Here, both sectors have fallen short ranging from prejudicial appointments, to tampering with policy — such as the Reserve Bank's mandate — to poor enforcement or adherence, to negligently creating uncertainty.

However, it is with the following criteria that I can’t help but wonder if Linz and Stepan got a whiff of Jacob Zuma and co’s plans for SA.

“A modern democracy,” they wrote, “needs the effective capacity to command, to regulate, and to extract tax revenues.” Before Zuma ascended to the Union Buildings, Sars was renowned the world over. The same however cannot be said today, with questionable appointments, allegations of corruption, widespread resignations and dismissals, misinformation campaigns (that for some reason continue), undermining of its authority, and ‘tax breaks’ to friends, all resulting in declining tax revenues.

Taxes form the basis of a democratic state’s ability to fund everything including the criminal justice system, healthcare, social grants, other basic services and, of course, the president’s personal home.

There is no need to remind anyone that vital institutions such as Sars, the NPA, police, intelligence, a number of departments and the various state-owned entities have made news headlines for all the wrong reasons. During Zuma’s tenure, these bodies were challenged, corrupted, undermined or blatantly attacked. The same goes for the officials who manned them. All of these would take years to rebuild even if we manage to keep the lights on.

And this brings us to the most important factor — the rule of law.

“It is the most important continuous and routine way in which the elected government and the state administration are subjected to a network of laws, courts, semiautonomous review and control agencies, and civil-society norms that not only check the state's illegal tendencies but also embed it in an interconnecting web of mechanisms requiring transparency and accountability,” wrote Linz and Stepan.

This aspect, I would argue, can be broken down into three: 1) Laws determine social, economic, and political processes and responsibilities; 2) How these laws are obeyed or implemented and; 3) How they are enforced when breached.

Firstly, SA's constitution still enjoys widespread praise. However the trouble lies with parts 2 and 3. How often is it that you see political actors ignore laws and regulations, and not only the government? (Name two for a tender) And when these actors are told to obey a particular law by, for example, a court, how often have you noticed reluctance or plain indifference?

One cannot help but wonder whether Linz and Stepan traveled to 2018 SA before they wrote this sentence: “A democracy in which a single leader enjoys, or thinks he or she enjoys, a ‘democratic’ legitimacy that allows him or her to ignore, dismiss, or alter other institutions — the legislature, the courts, the constitutional limits of power — does not fit our conception of rule of law in a democratic regime.”

This disregard enjoyed widespread popularity during the Zuma administration but is unfortunately still used. The ANC's election list is only the latest example in which the party showed a complete disregard for our courts. Bathabile Dlamini and Malusi Gigaba have both been found to have lied under oath — a criminal offence — yet will stand to be elected to parliament in May. The ANC secretary general Ace Magashule went further to not only insult the electorate's intelligence when he said politicians such as Dlamini and Gigaba could not be excluded from the list due to ‘allegations’ against them, but also undermined the very law that gives legitimacy to the body they hope to be elected to.

It is this complicated relationship that a number of government officials and the wider ANC has with the law that suggests a political test.

It is important for the ANC to lose power — whenever that may happen — to determine how it will respond. And yes, it has stated countless times that it would accept the outcome of any election, even if not in its favor. But it's former leader, despite all his attempts, still maintains that he wants his day in court.

The 2016 local elections showed some hopeful signs when the ANC lost a number of municipalities. But the question still lies with national power. Will the ANC give up the Union Buildings within the parameters of the law should it come second at the ballot box? This is a crucial question for a democracy that has never seen national power change hands. 

Until then, for all intents and purposes, SA is simply a rights-based one party state.

This is not to suggest one party in particular should win favour over another or that the ANC should never rule again. It is to ensure that our democracy can survive beyond any single party or group of individuals, especially if they seldom act in the interests of the people they claim to represent.