Johannesburg, May 7, 2014 – South Africans are voting in general elections as the country marks 20 years since the end of white-minority rule.
The African National Congress (ANC) is tipped to win, returning President Jacob Zuma for a second five-year term.
These are the first elections since the death in December of Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black president.
Reports say voting began smoothly with long queues and there is an air of excitement, especially amongst first-time voters.
Snaking queues line the narrow, dusty streets of Diepsloot, a densely populated township north of Johannesburg. Residents here frequently protest to demand basic services such as clean water, housing and electricity.
Albert Khosa, 73, escorted by his grandson said: “We’ve been starved of this vote for so many years. If I didn’t vote today, I would feel empty.”
His grandson Alpheos Tshikopo, 44, believes voting can make a difference: “We live in hope that things will change, that is why I am here today. If we have jobs we can look after ourselves, that is all we want.”
Crime and xenophobia are big problems in Dieplsoot. With little faith in the police, residents often take matters into their own hands.
But today this township’s problems seemed to be forgotten as many are in high spirits, laughter and chatter in the long queues.
They are not throwing stones or burning homes owned by suspected criminals, instead they are waiting for hours in the scorching heat to, make their voices heard in another way – at the ballot box.
The ANC is expected to win more than 60% of the vote, although opinion polls show there is disaffection with the country’s leadership.
Those born after the end of apartheid in 1994 are casting their first national ballots, although only a third of those entitled to do so have registered to vote.
Reports say police have been deployed to areas where there have been scene of violent protests and political tensions.
But it is not clear whether this will translate into a significant swing for the opposition.
The ANC’s main challenger is the Democratic Alliance (DA), the liberal pro-business party led by anti-apartheid activist Helen Zille, which is trying to make inroads into the black electorate.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), launched last year by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, hopes to get its first parliamentary seats with its campaign for nationalising the mines and the forced redistribution of farmland.
One voter there told the BBC: “I don’t see any party that can defeat the ANC. They fought for more than a hundred years… fought for this liberty and so no-one will turn their backs on them.”
With 24% unemployment, many young South Africans face an uncertain future
In Diepsloot, a township north of Johannesburg, scene of frequent protests by people demanding basic services such as water and electricity, Alpheos Tshikopo, 44, said: “We live in hope that things will change – that is why I am here today. If we have jobs we can look after ourselves, that is all we want.”
This concern was reflected in a BBC poll which suggests unemployment is the major issue for young voters in the country, where about a quarter of the workforce is jobless.
The ANC’s campaign has drawn heavily on its campaign to end apartheid and the outpouring of grief over Mr Mandela’s death.
“Do it for Madiba, Vote ANC!” campaign posters read, referring to Mr Mandela by his clan name.
However, a group of former ANC stalwarts led by ex-Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils has called on people to choose one of the smaller opposition parties or spoil their ballots to remind the ANC “that they’ve got to serve the people of the country and not themselves”.
“There’s a rot that’s set in, there’s huge corruption and graft and cronyism,” he told the BBC.
President Zuma urged people to cast their ballots freely as he voted in Nklandla near his rural home, which has been at the centre of scandal because of its expensive state-funded upgrades.
Some 22,000 polling stations are open at schools, places of worship and hospitals, while dozens of vehicles serving as mobile voting centres will operate in remote areas.
About 25 million people have registered to vote – roughly half the population.
Police say at least one officer will be on duty at every polling station and troops have also been deployed to keep order at various hotspots.
There was rioting in Bekkersdal township, south-west of Johannesburg, on Tuesday and some temporary polling stations were burned down.
Bekkersdal has suffered intermittent unrest since last year as residents protested over a lack of public services.