JOHANNESBURG – South Africans voted Wednesday in presidential and parliamentary elections, with early signs of a relatively low turnout, as voters say they are disillusioned by widespread corruption and unemployment.
It is 25 years since the end of apartheid, but despite the demise of the harsh system of racial discrimination, South Africa remains divided by economic inequality .
The African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela that has been in power since 1994, is likely to win a majority but it will face a difficult challenge to retain the 62% of the vote it got five years ago.
The party has been tarnished by widespread corruption scandals and a national unemployment rate of 27% that has discouraged many voters. The ANC’s leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa, has campaigned on promises to clean up his party, an acknowledgment of the problems that forced his predecessor to resign last year.
“Corruption got into the way,” said Ramaphosa after voting, saying that graft prevented his party from serving the people.
Selina Molapo, a 38-year-old resident of Tembisa township in eastern Johannesburg, agreed with the president, saying that corruption is a problem and complaining that the ANC did not deliver on its promise of jobs in the previous election campaign.
“In 2014 we voted for the ANC but our situation has not changed,” said Molapo. “I am voting for a different party.”
Firebrand opposition leader Julius Malema voted in his home area of Polokwane in northern Limpopo province. After casting his ballot, Malema said he expects a good turnout for his party, the populist, leftist Economic Freedom Fighters.
“If the people want to continue unemployed, if the people want to continue landless, then they can continue voting for the same party,” said Malema, referring to the ruling ANC. “But if you need change, the EFF is the way to go!”
The country’s young voters, who make up about 20% of the electorate, largely support Malema, who broke from the ANC six years ago. However, registration of voters under 30 years old was relatively low.
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, was one of the first voters at the Dobsonville polling station in Soweto, Johannesburg’s largest black township.
“Soweto represents to me the home of the struggle against apartheid and it is where we are now struggling against corruption and for a new government,” Maimane said after casting his ballot. Black support for Maimane’s party is limited because it is generally perceived to be run by whites.
The ANC has vowed to embark on a program of seizing white-owned land without compensation, for which it needs a 67% majority to change South Africa’s constitution.
In the most likely scenario, the ANC will need to form a coalition government with another party to get the votes needed. That is likely to be the EFF, which supports land seizures.
If the ANC’s share of the vote slips below 60%, Ramaphosa could be vulnerable and his party could oust him and choose a new leader.
More than 40 smaller parties also are vying for power in the balloting.
Neither the president nor the parliament is elected directly. Voters cast ballots for a national party and the number of votes won by each party determines how many representatives are sent to the legislature. The president is the leader of the party that gets the most votes.
Some 26 million people of the country’s population of 57 million are eligible to vote. Most of the 22,900 polling stations opened at 7 a.m. local time and were to close at 9 p.m. (0500 to 1900 GMT).
The day is a national holiday to encourage turnout.
South Africa was famous for its long lines of voters in the first post-apartheid election 25 years ago. But a sense of national apathy this year could be an ominous sign for the ANC.
Preliminary results will be announced from the electoral commission in the capital, Pretoria, and final results are not expected for 48 hours.
Associated Press writer Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg contributed.
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