Voters young and old wrapped up against the early morning chill to
stand in long lines across the country, evoking memories of the huge
queues that snaked through streets and fields for South Africa's
historic all-race elections in 1994.
"It is great voting for the first time. Now I have a say in the
country's election and what is happening. It is something new in my
life," said 18-year-old Mawande Nkoyi - a so-called post-apartheid
"Born Free" - in the Cape Town township of Langa.
Voting ends at 1900 GMT and a firm idea of the outcome should emerge
by midday on May 8 although there is little doubt about the result.
Polls put ANC support at around 65 percent, only a shade lower than
the 65.9 percent it won in the 2009 election that brought President
Jacob Zuma to power.
The ANC's enduring popularity has surprised analysts who said the
party could suffer as its glorious past recedes into history and
voters focus instead on the sluggish economic growth and slew of
scandals that have typified Zuma's first term.
Africa's most sophisticated economy has struggled to recover from a
2009 recession - its first since 1994 - and the ANC's efforts to
stimulate growth and tackle 25 percent unemployment have been
hampered by powerful unions.
South Africa's top anti-graft agency accused Zuma this year of
"benefiting unduly" from a $23 million state-funded security upgrade
to his private home at Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal province that
included a swimming pool and chicken run.
Zuma has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, defended the upgrades to
his home and said the accusations against him were unfair given the
importance of protecting any head of state. He confidently told
reporters on Monday the Nkandla controversy was "not an issue with
His personal approval ratings have dipped, but Zuma appeared relaxed
and assured as he voted at a school near Nkandla, ending what he
described as a "very challenging" campaign.
"I hope that all voters will cast their votes free," he told
reporters. "This is our right that we fought for."
Besides being easy fodder for the cartoonists who have reveled in
the freedom of speech enshrined in the post-apartheid constitution,
Nkandla has exposed the gulf between current and former ANC leaders,
in particular Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president,
who died in December.
It has also become the rallying cry for those who feel the ANC's
dominance as it enters its third decade in power has damaged the
soul of the 102-year-old former liberation movement.
"It is not necessarily the huge sum paid by the public that is the
most corrupt aspect of Zuma's palatial rural estate," the Business
Day newspaper said in an editorial this week.
"It is how voraciously this wretched business has sucked in so many
others: ministers, bureaucrats, party officials and, as the election
hots up, ordinary loyalists."
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Barring a major upset, the stock market and rand should take the
vote in their stride and could even gain if South Africa's
reputation for stability relative to other emerging markets such as
Brazil, Ukraine or Turkey is affirmed.
"Overall, the election is
reassuringly boring," said Simon Freemantle, an economist at
Standard Bank in Johannesburg. "We know who's going to win and we
know there are not going to be any radical policy changes. That is
SOUTH AFRICA'S CHAVEZ
The ANC's nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance, polled 16.7
percent nationwide in 2009 and, even though it has been gaining
ground, is still seen too much as the political home of privileged
whites to have mass appeal.
Instead, the most spirited challenge has come from the ultra-leftist
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by expelled ANC Youth League
leader Julius Malema, who models himself on Venezuela's Hugo Chavez,
right down to the jaunty red beret.
In his final rally at a Pretoria soccer stadium, Malema, who wants
to nationalize banks and mines and seize white-owned farms without
compensation, lambasted everything from the Nkandla issue to foreign
investors and former colonial powers.
"London must know that we're not scared of the queen," he said to
thunderous applause. "We shall not report to London. We will report
to the people. The people of South Africa will decide how business
is conducted in South Africa. We are taking everything."
However, even the EFF's noisy emergence is likely to have minimal
overall impact, with polls putting its support at 4-5 percent.
The silver-tongued Malema himself is also likely to barred from
public office this month if a court confirms a provisional
sequestration order imposed in February because of 16 million rand
($1.4 million) owed in unpaid taxes.
(Additional reporting by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura and Wendell Roelf;
Editing by Mark Heinrich and Ron Popeski)
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