PRETORIA: With nearly half the votes counted in South Africa's landmark election, the ruling ANC looked certain to extend its 20-year rule on Thursday, but with sizeble gains for the opposition.
Results from more than half the polling centres showed the ANC had garnered a thumping 63 percent of the popular vote, making it highly likely that President Jacob Zuma will return for a second five-year term.
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said the party -- which has been in power since the end of apartheid in 1994 -- expected to receive "an overwhelming mandate" from voters.
For millions of South Africans the ANC remains the party of liberation, a point underscored by the recent 20th anniversary of democracy and the outpouring of emotion that accompanied the death of former president Nelson Mandela.
But the party is expected to see its share of the vote slide for a second election in a row, down from just under 66 percent in 2009, and falling short of a two-thirds majority needed for constitutional amendments.
Meanwhile, a strong urban turnout appears to have significantly boosted support for the opposition Democratic Alliance, whose share of the vote is currently 23 percent, up from 17 percent at the last election.
DA leader Helen Zille told AFP early on Thursday that she expects the final tally to remain at 23 percent.
"We'll see how it goes, of course we hope it will be more, we did as much as we could."
DA support has been bolstered by successive scandals surrounding Zuma and frustration at rampant poverty and poor public services.
The party will be disappointed if it does not bring the ANC under 60 percent, a level that would put Zuma's position in doubt.
Casting his ballot in his home village of Nkandla, Zuma predicted the "results will be very good" but conceded the campaign had been "very challenging".
Zuma has been a lightning rod for criticism of the ANC and has been pilloried for the government spending $23 million (17 million euros) of taxpayers' money to upgrade his private home.
A record 25 million voters registered for the elections amid mounting anger over joblessness, inequality and corruption.
Turnout is said to be over 70 percent, including hundreds of thousands of "born free" South Africans who were registered to vote in a general election for the first time.
"People died for this right. They must not waste it," said Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu, a liberation struggle veteran who has openly said he will not vote for the ANC this time.
The eve of the ballot was also marred by isolated incidents of violence, with police and 1,850 troops deployed to several areas to keep order.
In Bekkersdal near Soweto, protestors had thrown rocks at police vehicles and set fire to a polling station just hours before it was due to open.
But residents vowed not to be dissuaded from voting, pouring into polling centres by foot and some pushed in wheelchairs and wheelbarrows.
On election day the ANC also reported a member of its campaign staff was killed "by an opposition party member" as he sat outside a polling station in KwaZulu-Natal province.
Pansy Tlakula, chairperson of the Independent Election Commission, said a number of complaints had been lodged by various parties and were being investigated.
But, she added, "we believe the credibility of the election has not been affected."