Polls opened in South Africa’s fifth all-race elections Wednesday, with up to 25 million citizens — including a “born free” generation electing a government for the first time — expected to cast their ballots.
Twenty years after South Africans of all colors wowed the world by voting to end centuries of racist rule, they will turn out to 22,263 polling centers to elect lawmakers and, in turn, a democratic president.
The run up to the vote had been marked by nostalgic rhetoric and voter fury.
On the eve of the ballot angry protestors threw rocks and set fire to a polling station in Bekkersdal near Soweto, where police and the army have been deployed to keep order.
But the township’s residents queued up from before dawn, vowing not to be dissuaded from exercising their hard-won democratic right.
“I’m here to vote for my future, I don’t care about what happened here yesterday. I won’t allow it to turn me away” said Nosihle Zikalala.
As in 1994 and the three subsequent elections, the African National Congress is expected to win handily.
The party’s electoral pitch has relied heavily on past anti-Apartheid glories and on the outpouring of grief over the death of its former leader Nelson Mandela to shore up support.
“Do it for Madiba, Vote ANC!” read one prominent campaign poster, referring to the late statesman by his clan name.
But throughout the campaign the party’s heroic past has collided with South Africa’s harsh present, with the ANC unable to assuage anger at government corruption, high unemployment and poor basic services.
Many commentators have billed this election as the last to be dominated by South Africa’s post-apartheid past.
The exact outcome will depend on turnout and on how the roughly one million South Africans who never knew apartheid will cast their ballots.
“Every party has its pros and its cons, so I need to just take some time and think about what is relevant to me,” said young voter Mealyn Joyce.
“I’m not voting on a historical basis, I’m voting on what I think I need as a young person.”
Polls show many are disaffected with the country’s current crop of leaders and are willing to consider the opposition Democratic Alliance or left-wing firebrand Julius Malema.
Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters Party is less than a year old, but has electrified the left and according to research firm Pondering Panda has backing of 25 percent of youth.
It has tapped into anger that the lot of many black South Africans has not improved since the advent of democracy in 1994 and left-wing disenchantment with ANC’s broadly pro-market policies.
The ANC is still expected to win more than 60 percent of the popular vote, returning President Jacob Zuma for a second five-year term.
But it is also likely to see its share of the vote slide for a second successive election.
The opposition Democratic Alliance is expected to do well in urban areas and push its share of the vote above 20 percent, but it still struggles to appeal to mainstream black voters.
The tenor of opposition campaigning has often been shrill, amid allegations of censorship by state broadcaster SABC and one case of ballot papers being found at an ANC activist’s home.
But according to Lizette Lancaster of the Institute of Security Studies the election will be free and fair despite isolated problems.
“From about October we recorded 78 incidents of election related incidents and protests, about two-third escalated into violence,” she said.
“I think the police are well equipped to deal with tomorrow, I think we will see a very strong security presence at the polling stations around the hotspots.”
Police said they will send at least one officer to every polling station and 1,850 army troops have also been deployed across the country.
Already an estimated 400,000 voters have cast early ballots, including some on the east coast who braved high winds that blew over tents erected for the vote.
Some 12,000 marked ballots have already been delivered by courier from voting stations overseas.
But the bulk of the voting will begin at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) on Wednesday and end roughly 14 hours later.
President Zuma, who has become a lightning rod for anger over corruption and mismanagement will vote at his Nkandala homestead in rural KwaZulu-Natal.
Nkandala itself has featured prominently in the election campaign after it emerged that Zuma’s administration spent $23 million of taxpayers cash on “upgrades” that include a swimming pool, amphitheater, helipad, private clinic and cattle kraal.
Opposition leader Helen Zille will vote in Cape Town.
While some early tallies may trickle in on Wednesday evening, the full result is not likely to be known before Friday.