South Africans began voting on Wednesday in national elections which the ruling ANC, in power since 1994, is favourite to win despite corruption scandals, sluggish economic growth and record unemployment.
The ANC has won all five previous elections, and is tipped to come out on top again albeit with a reduced majority.
But the vote will be a test of whether its new leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa, can reverse growing dissatisfaction among South African voters.
“This is the first time that I am voting so I am happy to vote. Most of the people are not voting because they are afraid,” said Lala Rosetta Ramaoka, 21, before she cast her ballot at the Mponegele Primary School in Seshego, eastern Limpopo province.
Ramaphosa took over from corruption-accused Jacob Zuma who oversaw the ANC’s most significant drop in support since 1994.
He acknowledged on the eve of the election that “we are humble enough to admit our mistakes. We have taken decisive steps to fight corruption”.
The election comes 25 years after Nelson Mandela led the African National Congress to power in the country’s first multi-racial vote which marked the end of apartheid.
Support for the ANC has fallen in every election since 2004 with the party winning 54 percent in 2016 local elections, compared with 62 percent in 2014’s national vote.
Ramaphosa, 66, took office last year when Zuma was forced to resign as president by the ANC after nine years dominated by corruption allegations and economic problems.
Most opinion surveys suggest the ANC will secure nearly 60 percent of the vote on Wednesday, thanks to Ramaphosa’s appeal and a fractured opposition.
“It reflects the weakness of the opposition, more than it does reflect the achievements of the ANC,” said political scientist, Collette Schulz-Herzenberg from Stellenbosch University.
‘Not happy with the ANC’
The ANC has been confronted by deepening public anger over its failure to tackle poverty and inequality in post-apartheid South Africa.
“People are not happy with the ANC -but they are still voting for them,” retired teacher, Lockie Mans, 65, told AFP in Coligny in the North West province.
The economy grew just 0.8 percent in 2018 and unemployment hovers around 27 percent -and over 50 percent among young people.
Of the 47 opposition parties in the race, only the main opposition centrist Democratic Alliance (DA) and the radical-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are major players.
The DA hopes to shed its image as a white, middle-class party. Its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane is contesting his first general election since taking the helm in 2015, and is expected to make modest gains on 2014’s 22 percent vote share.
“Vote for the future of this country and the South Africans who are unemployed,” said Maimane after voting in Soweto, insisting the poll was not “a beauty pageant but a contract” between voters and their representatives.
‘Clean up this country’
“This vote is about competence… so we can clean up this country,” added Maimane who wore a suit in the DA’s signature blue and posed for selfies with voters.
Moxolo Gqetywa, 48, a mother-of-two who has been unemployed for five years, said she “will vote Mmusi -obviously”.
“He has promised us jobs. We want to be set free from this poverty.”
But the radical leftist, EFF, founded six years ago by former ANC youth leader, Julius Malema, is predicted to make major gains, growing from 6.3 percent to a forecast 11 percent.
The party, which appeals mainly to young voters and the poor, has campaigned on its policy of seizing land from largely white owners to give to poor blacks.
Enforced land redistribution is also an ANC policy -alarming some investors.
Some 26.8 million voters are registered to cast ballots at 22,925 polling stations.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and are due to close 14 hours later.
Early results will emerge on Thursday with an official winner declared on Saturday.
The party that wins most seats in parliament selects the president, who will be sworn in on May 25.
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