, JOHANNESBURG Apr 22 – South Africans went to the polls on Wednesday in general elections all but certain to propel the ruling ANC party’s controversial leader Jacob Zuma to the presidency.
Long lines formed early outside polling stations with a record 23 million South Africans registered to cast ballots.
The result is not in doubt, with the African National Congress – in power since the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 – set for another crushing victory, despite corruption allegations lingering over its leader.
However, the ANC is facing a challenge from a splinter party set up by supporters of his rival, ex-president Thabo Mbeki, and Zuma had called for a massive turnout which would help the party maintain its two-thirds parliamentary majority.
The 67-year-old Zuma voted before midday in the schoolhouse of his home village of Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal province to rapturous cheers from his supporters.
"When I grew up, I did not know that this day would come," he said.
"This makes me feel great and it’s a feeling far different from the one that we had under the apartheid government" – which for decades denied blacks the right to vote.
In Johannesburg’s teeming Alexandra township, some voters queued with chairs and mugs of coffee.
"I came here at 12 midnight because I wanted to be the first in line so I can go back home and listen to the radio to see how the party I voted for is doing," said Ntombi Mthetho, 46.
The icon of South Africa’s democracy, Nelson Mandela cast his ballot in front of ululating crowds and a heavy media presence – 15 years after his election as South Africa’s first democratic president ended white-minority rule.
Mandela, now a frail 90-year-old, did not speak publicly but Paul Matshile, the premier of Gauteng province that includes Johannesburg, spoke for him.
"He said he is very happy that people have come out in big numbers," said Mashitile, who took Mandela’s arm as he shuffled to the ballot box with a walking stick.
Zuma is poised to become South Africa’s next president when parliament votes on a new head of state in early May.
Corruption charges were dropped against the ANC leader just two weeks ago but the scandal has done little to dent the popularity of the party which led the fight against apartheid.
Zuma has campaigned on promises to extend the gains of South Africa’s democratic transition to the millions of people still living in poverty – a task made all the more challenging by a recent slide toward recession.
"Since 1994, nothing has changed for us. We need a change. I still live in a house with no water and no electricity," said 18-year-old Thembelinie Sinenkosi Khanyileg, wrapped in a scarf on a chilly morning as she voted in Zuma’s village.
Zuma, the son of a housekeeper who spent a decade jailed alongside Mandela on Robben Island, rose through the party ranks to become the deputy to former president Thabo Mbeki. But the two developed a fierce rivalry, and Mbeki sacked him in 2005.
Boosted by support from the rural poor, Zuma seized the leadership of the ANC away from Mbeki in 2007. Under the new stewardship, the party took less than a year to sack Mbeki as president.
Mbeki loyalists broke away from the party to form the new Congress of the People (COPE), which is contesting the elections along with the existing opposition Democratic Alliance and a host of smaller parties.
Polls tip the ANC to win at least 60 percent of the vote, with COPE and the DA earning about 10 percent each.
Mbeki voted in Johannesburg without divulging which party he supports.
"I am sure that (question) is unconstitutional, this is a secret ballot," he said.
Zuma’s rivals have seized upon the corruption scandal to warn that his government would be unable to crack down on graft or the alarming crime rate in a country where 50 murders are committed every day.
Prosecutors did little to dispel the corruption claims that have dogged Zuma for years, saying they remained confident they could convict him but were dropping the case because of political meddling by investigators.
Zuma on Tuesday again denied any lingering cloud of doubt around him, and he has campaigned on promises to clean up government and improve public services.
For the 43 percent of South Africa’s 48 million people living on less than two dollars a day, many see themselves in the rise of a self-educated former herdboy.