Oscar Siwali remembers watching Nelson Mandela’s triumphant walk as he left prison after 27 years. In 1990, as the young pastor of a Baptist church, Siwali saw himself as an evangelical focused on winning souls and tending to his flock’s spiritual needs, not needing to prioritize political concerns. Nonetheless, he shared the pride of his people’s successful anti-apartheid activism that demanded “Free South Africa Now,” an outcry that inspired worldwide solidarity.

But just three years later, a far-right white nationalist assassinated Chris Hani, a leader of the South African Communist Party —an attack that threatened to derail South Africa’s transition from the oppressive white-minority rule to a democratic government that represented the entire country.

When Hani’s murder threatened to unleash a civil war that South Africans had labored so many decades to avoid, Siwali, like fellow Christian leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu, realized his faith compelled him to action. He began to preach peace in his sermons and to talk to those who had taken to the streets.

“I saw a different way of the work that I was called into, where I wasn’t just in service from the pulpit,” Siwali said. “That was truly my first revelation in seeing the importance of the clergy being out there, engaging with people … and [figuratively] taking that pulpit and placing it in the center of a community.”

In 2013, Siwali founded SADRA, a faith-based organization that trains people of all ages and backgrounds to be conflict mediators in their communities. It also has special programs for local church leaders, whom SADRA believes can be most effective in areas prone to violence and political tension because of the widespread respect they engender. SADRA is the only faith-based organization contracted with the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) to train election mediators and observers, and its current mission is ensuring that South Africa’s May 29 elections do not culminate in violence.

While the African National Congress (ANC) has held power since Mandela became president in 1994, with Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa seeking reelection, simmering discontent and power ambitions have birthed new political parties. Currently, as many as 300 parties are vying for the presidency, each vowing to fulfill the sweeping promises of liberation and equality espoused by the anti-apartheid movement.

Meanwhile, a new generation of younger leaders has emerged, impatient with and frustrated by the elders who have led a nation of high unemployment, high domestic violence, and low wealth redistribution. Further complicating the election is the inclusion of independent candidates for the first time. (Citizens do not vote directly for president; rather, the winning party selects the nation’s next leader.)

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Church leaders are on high alert that their nation could violently implode, particularly if people do not believe the elections were fair and corruption-free. Last month, for instance, pastors met with political leaders to pray and to strategize how to avoid bloodshed in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s second-most populous state, which is predicted to have a highly contested vote.

“Almost all of the people I know working in mediation and peacekeeping are gearing up for the national elections,” Siwali said. “Respected people in communities need to be able to watch over and be the eyes of society to make sure the counting is done properly and also be a neutral voice if tensions take place.”

CT talked with Siwali about his goal of training 5,000 church-leader mediators to work the elections, why so many feel frustrated about the state of their country, and how those outside the country can help.

How do South Africans generally feel about the state of their country?

For some time, the focus in South Africa was on working toward democracy and resolving the clear conflict between black and white people. The conflicts have now become about the lack of quality government service delivery and people not seeing the democratic dispensation that they had been waiting for, the freedom that people had been singing about.

At SADRA, we often hold community dialogues, and you’ll hear people saying, “I had seen on television in some countries that when freedom comes after war, the poor now live in big homes. The blacks take over the homes of the whites. But in our country, white people still live in the same homes that they lived in, and the blacks still live in the tin shacks that we live in. So, did freedom actually come?”

Some people even say, “Who said we wanted democracy when what we actually wanted was freedom?” They trusted the political leaders, but the leaders were not communicating that they weren’t getting the “freedom” they wanted because we have not been to war. It’s usually in countries that have been to war where you will have people who were poor taking over companies and homes from the rich. That’s not what has happened in South Africa because we’ve taken a peaceful journey in attempting forgiveness of each other and in working toward building a nation.

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What is at stake in this election?

We’ve never had a national election with so many controversies like this. Former president Jacob Zuma has broken off from the ANC and started the uMkhonto weSizwe Party. The ANC lost their effort in court to bar him from using this name, which is from a tagline long associated with the party.

Zuma has already done two terms as South Africa’s president and cannot legally become president a third time. He could potentially get a third term if his new political party wins, because he would be with a different party. Also, Zuma is facing a trial for corruption and was arrested previously, and they are trying to determine if that arrest would disqualify him from being president.

The potential for conflict is high no matter the results. Some candidates have threatened to drive the country into chaos if they don’t win. There have also been a lot of political assassinations that have taken place over the years. In this context, we are training church leaders to work as conflict mediators and election workers for peace, with the understanding that anything imaginable can happen.

How do Christians tend to vote?

South African Christians are not a homogenous group. For instance, you have Christians in the ANC, the South African Communist Party, and the Pan Africanist Congress.

We have European churches and American-planted churches, but indigenous churches are the largest. They are Pentecostal and charismatic, with sometimes a mixture of African traditions and Christianity. Because of their size—Zion Christian Church has 12 million members and Shembe Church has between 5 to 6 million—they tend to attract politicians seeking blessings and political support.

How many mediators have you trained?

In the past year, we’ve trained more than 1,300 church leaders, and in the last seven years, we’ve trained more than 3,000. Our dream is to train about 2,000 additional mediators, looking at specific provinces where the level of violence has been higher, such as KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape. The former president and the ANC are from KwaZulu Natal so the state KwaZulu is divided, because you now essentially have two ANC parties there.

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SADRA’s trained mediators have been hard at work in the election preparation process in all provinces. Mediators are helping to facilitate conversations between the IEC and community leaders. Specifically, in three communities, there would have been no election registration had SADRA mediators not intervened. In each community, mediators took a volatile situation with protesting residents and turned it around into a picturesque tapestry of people’s expression of their democratic right to register to vote.

What does mediation look like?

When officials from the IEC come into a community to prepare it for the election, local people can be hostile toward them, often frustrated because of a sense that the government isn’t providing services. SADRA trains mediators to work with the IEC to deescalate tensions.

For example, IEC workers often visit a community and encourage people to register to vote. But because people are frustrated that the government hasn’t provided them with services, they will block the commission from entering.

In these instances, the local mediators we have trained will meet with people on all opposing sides and work in the community to allow the IEC to enter peacefully. Allowing the electoral workers in could also be done with soldiers and police, but this method usually does not end well. It is not good to use the barrel of a gun to engage the democratic process.

Who supports SADRA’s work?

Individuals, agencies, and overseas embassies contribute funds to the conflict resolution work that we do across southern African nations. African governments tend to watch closely who gives money to civil society organizations because of the issue of the West intervening in African politics. As much as we ask for help, individual local donors are also wary of giving money, as they don’t want to be accused of interfering in politics.

How has doing peace work impacted your faith?

I initially worked at the Quaker Peace Centre, and it was during that time that I met some of the members of the Mennonite church. That sort of introduced me to a broader understanding of the theological aspects of peace-building because I was working in peace-building organizations, but not necessarily from a theological point of view.

For me, this work is about being reminded of the bigger task of the church in society. There are very big issues in society that the government must address, but cannot do so alone. The church also has this responsibility.

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How can people outside of the country support peace efforts in South Africa?

We need people to come to South Africa and observe the elections. We also need international grantors who are able to make grants available to local organizations to form local observation teams. Even with everyone who is on the ground, including groups like the Carter Center, we are still short when it comes to election observation.

In the last election, we only had 12 percent (around 8,000) of the required 66,000 election observers at voting locations. I’m hoping we could have 50 percent of those slots filled this year. These are the people who observe the count and keep the overall peace of the election environment. It’s a lack of money and government commitment, as to why our nation does not have the number of people in place that we need.

Pray for peace before, during, and after the elections. We need a lot of prayer for the KwaZulu-Natal Province where a lot of violence has happened already, and more is expected as we get closer to election day.

What we desire as peace-builders is that there will be a free, fair election and outcome that can be accepted by the people of South Africa no matter who wins.