The party that swept to power two decades ago under the leadership of Nelson Mandela had 64% of the vote with about half of ballots counted, the electoral commission said.
Its nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance, held 22%. The party had been expected to improve on the 16.7% it won five years ago as it gradually sheds its image as the political home of privileged white people.
The ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema, a populist politician who was expelled from the ANC, was in third place with around 5%. Mamphela Ramphele’s much-trumpeted Agang SA imploded and is under 1%.
Many among the country’s 25 million registered voters – about half the total population – lined up before the 22,263 voting stations opened at 7am on Wednesday at schools, places of worship, tribal authority sites and hospitals. The army deployed 1,850 troops across the country.
Zuma cast his vote in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal province, where a scandal over the spending of taxpayer millions on security upgrades at his homestead did not prevent crowds greeting him enthusiastically and ululating.
“I feel very good,” said Zuma, wearing a grey jacket. “I have been very enthusiastic for this date to come. As you know, all political parties have been canvassing voters for a number of weeks. I feel good that I’ve just voted, and I hope that all voters will cast their votes free without any problem because this is our right that we fought for.
“Among the rights that we have, this is one of the most important rights, to vote for the government, and I hope all people will do so, because it is absolutely important.”
Asked for whom he had voted, Zuma joked: “It’s a secret,” and burst into laughter.
But while some of those who have no memory of racial apartheid, which ended in 1994, seized their chance of a democratic voice, others preferred to use the public holiday to stay at home or socialise.
“I’m feeling awesome. It’s going to be my first time,” said Lindiwe Zulu, 20, on her way to vote in Katlehong on the East Rand. “I got the opportunity to be free and to say whatever I want to say. I have a lot of freedom in everything, not just my culture but my personal opinions as well. This country has done a lot for us, especially the ‘1994s’.”
Zulu said she would vote for the ANC. “It is the first party that has opened up opportunities for us. It has gone through a lot for us. I’m proud to vote for it.”
But of 1.9 million potential voters aged 18 and 19, only one in three is registered to vote. Among those staying away was Mpho Masuku, a student from Springs near Johannesburg, who turned 20 last week.
“It makes me sad,” he said. “I haven’t found a political party that really convinces me to vote for them. I think the ANC are really criminals and I don’t like them. They have stolen from us and all of them support the man [Zuma] who has actually stolen from the poor. The whole nation does not want that man.”
Masuku also rejected the firebrand leftist Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF): “I read the EFF manifesto and I found some pretty good darned stuff there but they are so radical and so violent, they actually sound racist. They sound like they want to kill white people.
“It’s 20 years after democracy and we haven’t found any political party capable of running this country. The rainbow nation is still a theory.”
Opposition politicians also expressed concern at the born free generation’s relative lack of impact on the outcome. Voting at a church in Soweto township, Mmusi Maimane of the Democratic Alliance said: “It is disappointing. This is also their future. I’ve reflected long and hard about this. We have to ask why young people are not more engaged and find new ways to engage them in the future.”
Maimane has been accused of imitating Barack Obama in a bid to woo the youth vote in Gauteng province. “If that’s the worst the ANC can accuse me of, it certainly beats allegations of corruption,” he said. “I think the ANC will come out bruised after this election. They won’t be as dominant as they think.”
But opinion polls predict the ANC will cruise to around 64% of the vote, only a slight dip since the last election in 2009. “Do it for Madiba, vote ANC!” read some campaign posters, referring to the former president Nelson Mandela by his clan name, although few commentators believe that the statesman’s death at the age of 95 last December has been a significant factor.
The full result is not likely to be known before Friday. Simon Freemantle, an economist at Standard Bank in Johannesburg, told Reuters: “Overall, the election is reassuringly boring. We know who’s going to win and we know there are not going to be any radical policy changes. That is reassuring