JOHANNESBURG - Millions of determined South Africans -- including hundreds of thousands of first-time "born free" voters -- turned out in force for a landmark general election on Wednesday.
Twenty years after South Africans of all colours wowed the world by voting to end apartheid, they shrugged off sporadic violence to cast their ballots in the first poll since the death of democratic hero Nelson Mandela.
His African National Congress is widely expected to claim a fifth consecutive term in power, but strong turnout in South Africa's cities could prove a boon for the party's political foes.
Pansy Tlakula, chairperson of the Election Commission said voting "proceeded without serious incident in almost all areas.
"Very high volume of voters were reported in metro areas throughout the country."
The high urban turnout could cost the ANC as much as five percentage points, according to pollsters IPSOS, and aid the centrist Democratic Alliance and left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters.
Anything less than 60 percent for the ANC would be seen as a major upset and raise questions about President Jacob Zuma's leadership.
Commentators have billed this election as the last to be dominated by the memory of apartheid.
A new generation of South Africans -- numbering around two million, with around 646,000 registered to vote -- were born after the end of apartheid and will cast their ballots for the first time.
"I am kind of nervous, thinking 'Have I made a good decision or not?'" said Lesedi Nene aged 19.
South Africans queue to vote in volatile Kwa-Mashu. PHOTO/AFP
South African policemen stand guard next to people queuing to vote in volatile Kwa-Mashu, some 35 kms north of Durban. PHOTO/AFP
'This is our right'
A record 25 million voters registered for the elections 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 will not vote for the ANC this time.
The eve of the ballot was marred by isolated incidents of violence, with police and 1,850 troops deployed to several 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 the election nationally was "proceeding smoothly".
And in Bekkersdal, residents vowed not to be dissuaded from voting. They poured into the township's 15 polling centres, 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," said Mziwamadoda Ngceke, 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."
A South African woman wearing a t-shirt with the picture of President Jacob Zuma casts her ballot at the Baqaqe Primary School in Eshowe. PHOTO/AFP
Supporters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and opposing Congress of the People (COPE) sing and dance together next to a polling station in the Vrygrond informal settlement. PHOTO/AFP
Do it for Mandela
The 72-year-old president said he expected the "results will be very good" but conceded the election 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.
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.
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."
But throughout the campaign the party's heroic past has collided with South Africa's harsh present.
Polls show many 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 is expected to win around four percent of the vote and more than a dozen seats in parliament.
It has campaigned on a pledge to nationalise the mines and seize white-owned land without compensation.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the Democratic Alliance is expected to push its share of the vote above 20 percent.
But it still struggles to appeal to mainstream black voters.
"I can't give the EFF the benefit of the doubt, and with the DA, I'm concerned about racism coming back," said 22-year-old Michael Nekumbe voting in Soweto.
"I have nothing against whites, but I just fear that we might see the return of racism."
While some early tallies may trickle in after the closing of polling stations on Wednesday evening, the full result is not likely to be known before Friday.
High turnout in landmark South African poll