BEKKERSDAL, South Africa: Twenty years after South Africans of all colors wowed the world by voting to end apartheid, they shrugged off sporadic violence and flocked to the polls Wednesday for another landmark election.
The African National Congress of liberation icon Nelson Mandela is expected to win a fifth term in power, but the election is being closely watched for the votes of the “born frees” and expected gains by parties to both the left and right.
Some 25 million voters registered for the elections were still determined to exercise their hard-won freedom at more than 22,000 polling centers despite mounting anger over joblessness, inequality and corruption.
“People died for this right. They must not waste it,” said Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu, a liberation struggle veteran who has said openly he would not vote for the ANC.
But, referring to unrest in countries such as Ukraine and South Sudan he added: “I’m so glad we can still vote relatively peacefully. Wonderful.”
The eve of the ballot was marred by some isolated incidents of violence, with police and 1,850 troops deployed to many areas to keep order.
In Bekkersdal near Soweto, protesters threw rocks at police vehicles and set fire to a polling station.
But an umbrella group of police, military and election authorities said in a statement that nationally the polls were “proceeding smoothly.”
And in Bekkersdal, residents vowed not to be dissuaded from voting. They poured into the township’s 15 polling centers, many on foot and some pushed in wheelchairs and wheelbarrows.
In the cool early morning mist, some voters danced in celebration amid the charred husk of the polling station, disregarding the detritus of the previous night’s anger.
“We should fight with our votes, let our votes do the talking, not violence,” Mziwamadoda Ngceke, said proudly sporting the purple-blue indelible mark on his right thumb that showed he had voted.
Casting his ballot in his home village of Nkandla, President Jacob Zuma expressed hope that “all voters will cast their votes without any problems because this is our right, which we fought for.”
The 72-year-old president said he expected the “results will be very good” but conceded the election campaign had been “very challenging.”
The ANC is expected to win more than 60 percent of the popular vote, but it is also likely to see its share of the vote slide for a second successive election.
Zuma has been a lightning rod for criticism of the ANC and has been pilloried for the government spending $23 million of taxpayers’ money to upgrade his private home.
Throughout the campaign the ANC has relied heavily on past anti-apartheid glories and on the outpouring of grief over the death in December of its former leader Mandela to shore up support.
“Do it for Madiba, Vote ANC!” read one prominent campaign poster, referring to the late statesman’s clan name.
For first time voter Nonhlahla, aged 20, that message resonated.
“I am proud that I will be voting for the ANC,” she said.
“I am in a free South Africa because of the ANC.”
However, throughout the campaign the party’s heroic past has collided with South Africa’s harsh present, with the ANC unable to assuage anger over a spate of corruptionscandals, high unemployment and poor basic services.
Many commentators have billed this election as the last to be dominated by the memory of apartheid.
A new generation of South Africans – numbering around 2 million, with around 646,000 registered to vote – were born after the end of apartheid and will cast their ballots for the first time.
Polls show many of these “born-free” voters are disaffected with the country’s current crop of leaders and are willing to consider the centrist opposition Democratic Alliance or left-wing firebrand Julius Malema.
Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters party is less than a year old, but has tapped into popular anger that little has changed for millions of black South Africans since the advent of democracy.
Malema, whose EFF is expected to win around 4 percent of the vote and more than a dozen seats in parliament, has campaigned on a pledge to nationalize the country’s mines and seize white-owned land without compensation.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the Democratic Alliance, which is pilloried by the ANC as a party for whites and the elite, is expected to do well in urban areas.
Opinion polls say it will push its share of the vote above 20 percent, but it still struggles to appeal to mainstream black voters.
Its leader Helen Zille cast her vote at an old stone church in Rondebosch, a leafy Cape Town suburb in the shadow of Table Mountain.
She dismissed charges that the DA was a party for whites as “propaganda of the past” and said that it was the most racially diverse party in the country.
While some early tallies may trickle in after the closing of polling stations Wednesday evening, the full result is not likely to be known before Friday.