YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – South Africans go to the polls May 29, in what some analysts believe could go down as the most consequential vote since Nelson Mandela won the country’s first democratic election in 1994.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and the African National Congress, which has dominated South African politics since the fall of apartheid, are struggling to keep their parliamentary majority. Polls suggest the ANC may get less than 50 percent of the vote for the first time in 30 years as it competes against 52 other parties.

Of special note is the return of former President Jacob Zuma to the fray, despite persistent corruption allegations and a prison sentence for defying a court order.

In a wide-ranging interview with Crux, the director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa, Father Russell Pollitt, analyses the chances of the competing parties, the role of the church in the electoral and political process. He also goes down memory lane to re-assess South Africa’s transition to democratic rule, 30 years later.

The following are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: Where were you thirty years ago when South Africa voted in its first multi-racial elections?

Pollitt: I was in tertiary studies in my first year.

Describe the feeling at the time of voting and seeing people of various races vote.

It was a wonderful day, so much joy, so much anticipation. I remember standing in a long queue – people were patient and happy. One could feel a real consolation and jubilation, a great hope and expectation. There was really a sense of hope in what was termed the emerging ‘rainbow nation.’

Shortly after being installed as South African President, Nelson Mandela said: ‘The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.’ Thirty years on, do you think South Africa has been healed of its divides?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we now have a constitutional democracy, we had the truth commission in which we got some insight into what happened under apartheid – the atrocities of the past.

No in the sense that millions of people in this country still live in poverty, there has been little follow-through from the truth commission and reparation made for the atrocities committed. Race is still a big issue in the country – so much is still seen through the lens of race, and it can often be acrimonious. The economy is still in the hands of very few rich people.

This year’s celebration comes just ahead of another presidential election, and a former president who had faced several corruption charges and been jailed for defying a court order is even running again. Does the fact that Jacob Zuma is again candidate for president strengthen or weaken South African democracy, in your opinion?

In my opinion, former President Jacob Zuma will make significant gains in his home province of Kwazulu/Natal. He will attract voters who are fed up with the ruling ANC. He will also attract people from the opposition who are feeling they have not performed well. His MK party stands a good chance of ruling in his home province, and kicking the ruling ANC out would be a big loss for the ANC and the end of its 30-year rule in the province.

But, I would suggest he will have little impact on the national election. I also think that he will not be a significant player in the next election 2029 – this is a one-off.

What are the various candidates talking about, and are their policy positions good for the country?

There are 52 parties contesting! Maybe I can say something about the various parties that have entered the scene:

Besides the three main parties (The African National Congress, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters) contesting South Africa’s 2024 election, there are several smaller parties that, in a coalition, will impact the political landscape.

Some of these include the newcomers: Rise Mzansi, who say they will offer leadership to stop the crisis, stabilize the country and deliver the fruits of democracy. ActionSA claims that they will deal harshly with criminals, build an inclusive economy that will do away with the policy of black economic empowerment, end poverty and secure the country’s borders.

uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK, Zuma’s party) says it is committed to transformative change across all sectors of South African society and will address pressing challenges that the country faces, including economic inequality, inadequate access to quality education and healthcare, national security threats, inequitable land distribution, and the need for robust traditional leadership.

Patriotic Alliance (PA) claims that they will return “God to our schools” and ensure that all illegal foreigners are expelled. The party is profoundly anti-immigrant and does not address some of South Africa’s pressing issues, like crime and public office accountability.

Older political parties that will play a role in coalition governments include:

The Freedom Front Plus (FF+) is a right-leaning party that says it will restore and rebuild the country. It promises seven areas of change for the country, including multiparty governments that keep the ANC out of power, a free-market system, a small central government with a limited role in the provincial and local sphere, communities’ right to self-determination, and the abolishment of legislation geared towards affirmative action—it is strongly opposed to black economic empowerment.

Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) is a party geared towards rural support that would give traditional leaders and courts more power to fight crime. The party says it would insist on free primary education, open a debate on the death penalty (which was abolished when apartheid ended in 1994), and be tough on immigrants.

Ramaphosa is fighting the odds for re-election. He is touting achievements in diverse areas, but do you think he has done enough to deserve re-election?

I think that Ramphosa and the ANC will be back in power. Yes, he does tout achievements and say ridiculous things, but all politicians do around an election.

Interesting is that although fewer people trust the ANC, more people, especially in the economic sector, trust Ramaphosa. The ANC also has no real possible figure to lead at this moment other than Ramaphosa. He has managed, in the last few weeks, to significantly influence polls.

He seems to have run a good campaign by doing things like bringing former president Mbheki back to canvas in significant places in the country. Mbheki has not been on the election campaign trail since he left office – he was not a Zuma supporter, granted, but Rampahosa has managed to get him out on the streets and I think this has been to his credit too.

What are the challenges the next president will confront?

The president will need to deal with massive youth unemployment, a fragile and stagnant economy, power cuts, high crime, massive poverty, a failing public service, huge corruption… There is a massive mountain to climb for a new president.

What is the role of the church in the electoral process?

The bishops have written a pastoral letter. The Jesuit Institute has been trying to do voter education with the SACBC’s Justice and Peace Department and encourage people to discern their vote. Parishes have been encouraged to pray for the elections to make people aware that our faith has a role to play.

What should guide the choices voters are going to make?

We are hoping that people will step back and consider the bigger picture – what leadership the country needs, what their values are, what they want to see happen in our country, what our faith says is important, and then start to consider the options.

Often, we begin with what parties and candidates offer. We are suggesting and hoping that people start with their own vision and values and then consider who might be able to fulfill those in the best possible way knowing that not one single person/party will be able to fulfill all.

What message do you have for the people of South Africa as they head to the polls?

To take time to think carefully, connect with your own vision and values for the country, spend time in prayer, look at the rich teaching of the church when it speaks about social issues and civic duties, spend time in prayer and look at what the various candidates and parties are saying in their manifestos, reflect and then try and make the best choice that you can knowing that no person or party will be perfect.