JOHANNESBURG - President Jacob Zuma on Friday announced that South Africa will hold a general election on May 7, a vote which promises to be the sternest test yet of the ruling African National Congress.
The election -- South Africa's fifth since apartheid ended in 1994 -- will be the first in which "born free" citizens can cast their ballot. They could make up as much as one fifth of the electorate.
It will also be the first election since the death of Nelson Mandela, the nation's founding father, first democratically elected president and the ANC's talismanic leader.
"These are historic elections as they take place during the 20th anniversary of our freedom from apartheid bondage," Zuma said, foreshadowing a campaign likely to lean heavily on the ANC's past glories.
Zuma said the vote would "consolidate the democracy and freedom that we worked so hard to achieve, and for which esteemed South Africans such as former president Nelson Mandela sacrificed life's comforts for."
The ANC is the strong favourite to win a majority of the 400 seats in parliament and so to return Zuma, now 71, to the presidency.
It has won each of the last four elections by a landslide, garnering more than 60 percent of the popular vote.
But the party's reputation has been sullied by pervasive inequality, joblessness, cronyism, corruption and government incompetence.
And this time round the ANC faces a phalanx of opposition parties -- from the centrist Democratic Alliance to the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters of Julius Malema -- who have fastened on to widespread popular unease.
Zuma himself heads into the election with his own standing significantly reduced.
He has been beset by a litany of scandals, crowned by the revelation that $20 million in taxpayer money was used to refurbish his rural homestead.
That sits uneasily in a country where one in three workers is unemployed and many millions struggle to get by.
"This will be the jobs election," said Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille, who promises to implement policies that create six million new jobs, if elected.
"We will make this election a battle of ideas; even as our opponents cling to the outdated politics of racial mobilisation."
The Democratic Alliance has seen its share of the vote increase from two percent to 17 percent in the last four elections.
But with the party still struggling to shed its image as a bastion of white and mixed-race interests, its strongest challenge to the ANC may come in urban and provincial elections.
The Democratic Alliance already runs the Western Cape province, including Cape Town, and has its sights set on wresting control of Gauteng, which encompasses Johannesburg and Pretoria.
The country's most populous province and its economic heart, Gauteng has been at the centre of a wave of violent protests over the government's failure to provide jobs and basic services.
Gauteng police say they were called in to 569 protests in the last three months alone and over a fifth of demonstrations turned violent.
Across the country as many as nine protesters are alleged to have been shot dead by police in the last month.
As Zuma's announcement came Friday, residents of Hebron township near Pretoria burned tyres and threw stones at passing vehicles as part of a protest against lack of water and sanitation.
"If this government is not ready to listen to us, then violence maybe will make them listen," said resident Reuben Mohlatsi.
But with 89 days to the election, the relatively long campaign may help the ANC, whose grassroots network and political war chest are without peer in the country.
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South African general election set for May 7