South Africans are voting in presidential and parliamentary elections in what is being seen as a pivotal election after years of corruption scandals that have plagued the “rainbow nation”.
Some 26.8 million voters are registered to cast ballots at 22,925 polling stations. Polls opened at 7am (05:00 GMT) and close 14 hours later.
Early results will emerge on Thursday while the official winner will be declared on Saturday. The party that wins most seats in parliament selects the president, who will be sworn in on May 25.
Voter turnout has been predicted at around 70 percent. But an hour after polls opened at Orlando West polling station in Soweto – an important site in the anti-apartheid struggle – the small queue of voters was a far cry from the vast crowds shown in images of the first democratic elections in 1994.
An estimated six million youths below age 30 have not registered to vote and there were few young voters waiting in line at the Orlando West polling station.
Turnout was better in Alexandra, a township in Johannesburg, with some voters waiting for at least an hour before casting their ballot.
“There are more people voting here than last time around. People are standing up,” Nketumetse Malekutu, 42, told Al Jazeera after voting.
“I want to give Ramaphosa a chance. I’m doing this for my children,” Malekutu, a care worker, added.
Grace Mosima, 40, said she voted for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in the 2014 election but would not this time around.
“I’m so disappointed with the ruling party. I hope the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) will create more jobs and bring free education for our children.” Mosima, a factory worker, said.
Wednesday’s vote comes 25 years after the end of apartheid but despite the demise of the racially discriminatory system, the country remains divided by economic inequality.
While dozens of parties are competing, the main contenders are the ANC, EFF and the DA (Democratic Alliance).
The ANC is almost certain to win again. However, its reputation has been damaged over the past 10 years by a stream of scandals under former President Jacob Zuma.
Zuma was forced to resign in 2018 and is currently on trial on corruption charges.
His replacement, Cyril Ramaphosa, has a cleaner image. But he has lost votes in recent years to the EFF and its leader Julius Malema, who promises to redistribute white-owned land and nationalise the banks.
The DA has also eaten into the ANC’s once-dominant share of the vote. In the last municipal elections, the DA won in two key cities – Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The ANC – the liberation party that brought about the end of the racist apartheid regime and enfranchised black South Africans – will be challenged on whether it can win back disillusioned urban voters.
Under South Africa‘s electoral system, citizens do not vote directly for the president, but a vote for the ANC is essentially a vote for Ramaphosa.