TWENTY years after South Africans of all colours wowed the world by voting to end apartheid, they shrugged off sporadic violence and flocked to polls Wednesday, with the ANC expected to return for a fifth consecutive term.
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Some 25 million voters were registered for South Africa's fifth multi-racial elections, still determined to exercise their hard-won freedom at more than 22,000 polling centres despite mounting anger over joblessness, inequality and corruption.
"People died for this right. They must not waste it," said Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu alluding to unrest in Ukraine and South Sudan. "I'm so glad we can vote."
But the eve of the ballot was marred by violence, with police and 1,850 troops deployed to several areas to keep order.
In Bekkersdal near Soweto, protestors threw rocks at police vehicles and set fire to a polling station.
ANC leader Jacob Zuma prepares to cast his vote for the general elections at the Ntolwane Primary School in his rural village of Nkandla. AFP Photo
Voters queue at the Rakgatla High School voting station in Marikana, where residents reported waiting on line for more than four hours. AFP Photo
But residents vowed not to be dissuaded. They poured into the township's 15 polling centres, many on foot and some pushed in wheelchairs and wheelbarrows.
"I'm here to vote for my future, I don't care about what happened here yesterday. I won't allow it to turn me away," said Nosihle Zikalala.
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 purply-blue indelible mark on his right thumb that showed he had voted.
Residents react as they stand in a queue before voting at a polling station in Bekkersdal township. AFP Photo
South African policemen patrol an area in Rustenburg. AFP Photo
A supporter of South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party holds up a portrait of party leader Julius Malema.n AFP Photo
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."
'Do it for Madiba'
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.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah Tutu (L) arrive to cast their ballot as part of the general elections in Cape Town. AFP Photo
EFF leader Julius Malema cast his ballot in Polokwane. The 33-year-old ex-ANC cadre founded his Economic Freedom Fighters party less than a year ago and has quickly become a force in South African politics. AFP Photo
Zuma's own future seems uncertain.
He 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.
The vast estate, which is a short distance from where Zuma cast his ballot, boasts a helipad, amphitheatre and private clinic.
Throughout the campaign the ANC has relied heavily on past anti-apartheid glories and on the outpouring of grief over the death of its former leader Nelson Mandela to shore up support.
South African police frisk residents in the restive township of Gugulethu early morning. AFP Photo
An elderly couple arrives at a polling station in the impoverished Bekkersdal township. AFP Photo
A young woman walks around a line of ballot booths to cast her vote, on the second day of special votes, at a school in Crossroads Township. AFP Photo
"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."
But 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 graft scandals, high unemployment and poor basic services.
Democratic Alliance (DA) leader, Helen Zille gestures after casting her ballot. AFP Photo
South Africans vote in their fifth democratic elections seen as the biggest test yet for the ruling African National Congress, in power since the end of apartheid in 1994. AFP Photo
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 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.
Polls show many of these "born-free" voters are disaffected with the country's current crop of leaders and are willing to consider the 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 anger that little has changed for millions of black South Africans since the advent of democracy.
South Africans queue to vote for the general elections early in the restive Bekkersdal township. AFP Photo
Polls opened in South Africa's fifth all-race elections with up to 25 million citizens including a "born free" generation electing a government for the first time expected to cast their ballots. AFP Photo
A woman at work to set up a polling station ahead of the general elections after members of the local community burnt down the previous one. AFP Photo
'Honour the past'
The larger opposition Democratic Alliance is expected to do well in urban areas and push its share of the vote above 20 percent, but it still struggles to appeal to mainstream black voters.
Its leader Helen Zille queued with around 200 others to cast her vote at an old stone church in Rondebosch, a leafy Cape Town suburb in the shadow of Table Mountain.
She urged voters to "honour the past but own the future. And the DA is the future."
F.W. de Klerk, former South Africa president, waits to get his ballot papers at a polling station in an upmarket area of Seapoint. AFP Photo
People show their passports prior to voting in the general elections at a polling station in Marikana. AFP Photo
The tenor of opposition campaigning has often been shrill, amid allegations of censorship by state broadcaster SABC and one case of ballot papers being found at an ANC activist's home.
But according to Lizette Lancaster of the Institute of Security Studies the election will be free and fair despite isolated problems.
"From about October we recorded 78 incidents of election related incidents and protests, about two-thirds escalated into violence," she said. "I think the police are well equipped."
Polls opened at 7:00 am and voting will close roughly 14 hours later.
While some early tallies may trickle in on Wednesday evening, the full result is not likely to be known before Friday.