, PRETORIA, Apr 24 – Supporters of Jacob Zuma sang and danced in the streets, celebrating an imminent election victory for his African National Congress that will land him the presidency.
With over half of the votes counted the ANC held a commanding lead, and seemed certain to hold onto a two-thirds majority in the next parliament that would name the popular but controversial Zuma president.
"We know that counting is still going on, but we can smell a 70 percent" majority, said Zuma , wearing a black and yellow leather jacket on a stage where he danced with singers as firecrackers popped and champagne flowed over 2,000 supporters.
"Opposition parties campaigned by belittling this organisation of the people, but we came out strong," Zuma said.
The ANC had 67.06 percent of the vote, with ballots counted from over half of the registered electorate, as millions of supporters put their faith in Zuma despite corruption charges dropped just two weeks ago.
Final results were expected by Friday afternoon but it seemed little could sway the outcome, while the threat posed by a breakaway group, the Congress of the People (COPE), appeared to have fizzled out.
The splinter party formed by supporters of former president and Zuma rival Thabo Mbeki looked to have taken nearly eight percent.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance was at just under 16 percent, but looked set to grab a decisive majority in the Western Cape province, which includes Cape Town, for the first time ever.
The ANC was leading in the provincial contests, making ground in Kwa-Zulu Natal where its Zulu leader appears to have made a clean sweep of the former Inkatha Freedom Party stronghold.
The main question now was whether the ANC would hold on to its two-thirds majority, which the party has held for five years, allowing it to make changes to the constitution.
"I don’t think the ANC wants to do that, it has had six or seven years of a two thirds majority. There have been some changes to the constitution but they have been minor," said political analyst Adam Habib, adding the figure was a "symbolic marker for internal political reasons."
Analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said the majority would come with "great expectations for the ANC … to improve the performance of state in terms of poverty, health and job creation."
Dissatisfaction with service delivery failures and political crises over the past few years, as well as the scandal around Zuma, are credited with luring a record 23 million people to register to vote.
Initial estimates indicated turnout at about 77 percent.
Overflowing ballot boxes and long queues saw the heavy turnout compared with the country’s first democratic vote in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the first black president after decades of white-minority rule.
Despite an otherwise peaceful poll, a COPE party official in the Eastern Cape was shot dead by three armed men in an attack on his home.
Zuma has experienced massive support in the midst of corruption charges and factionalism in the ANC from his mainly working-class devotees who hope the populist leader is their ticket to improved public service and more jobs.
Zuma is seen as the antithesis of Mbeki who managed impressive economic growth, but failed to tackle the world’s largest AIDS rates with denialist policies while denying the staggering crime rate was a crisis.
The son of a housekeeper, Zuma was a stalwart of the struggle against white minority rule, and spent a decade jailed alongside Mandela on Robben Island.
He became deputy to former president Mbeki, but the two developed a fierce rivalry, and Mbeki sacked him in 2005.
Zuma seized the leadership of the ANC away from Mbeki in 2007, and the party took less than a year to dismiss Mbeki as president.