* Vote is first for those with no memory of apartheid
* Zuma's popularity dented but ANC likely to keep power
* Rand may gain if election goes smoothly
(Adds comments on turnout para 4)
By Ed Cropley
JOHANNESBURG, May 7 South Africans voted in the
first "Born Free" election on Wednesday, with the image of the
ruling African National Congress as conqueror of apartheid
likely to appeal even to those with no memory of white-minority
Voters young and old wrapped up against the early winter
chill to stand in long lines across the country, evoking
memories of the huge queues that snaked through streets and
fields for South Africa's historic all-race elections in 1994.
"It is great voting for the first time. Now I have a say in
the country's election and what is happening. It is something
new in my life," said 18-year-old Mawande Nkoyi - a so-called
post-apartheid "Born Free" - in the Cape Town township of Langa.
Chief election commissioner Pansy Tlakula said turnout was
"extremely high" but voting was proceeding smoothly at all the
22,263 polling stations, which were due to close at 1900 GMT.
A firm idea of the outcome should emerge by the afternoon of
May 8 although there is little doubt about the overall result.
Polls put ANC support near 65 percent, only a shade lower
than the 65.9 percent it won in the 2009 election that brought
President Jacob Zuma to power.
The ANC's enduring popularity has surprised analysts who had
said the party could suffer as its glorious past recedes into
history and voters focus instead on the sluggish economic growth
and slew of scandals that have typified Zuma's first term.
Africa's most sophisticated economy has struggled to recover
from a 2009 recession - its first since 1994 - and the ANC's
efforts to stimulate growth and tackle 25 percent unemployment
have been hampered by powerful unions.
South Africa's top anti-graft agency accused Zuma this year
of "benefiting unduly" from a $23 million state-funded security
upgrade to his private home at Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal
province that included a swimming pool and chicken run.
Zuma has denied any wrongdoing and defended the upgrades as
necessary for the protection of a head of state. He confidently
told reporters on Monday the Nkandla controversy was "not an
issue with the voters".
His personal approval ratings have dipped this year, but
Zuma appeared relaxed and assured as he voted at a school near
Nkandla, ending what he called a "very challenging" campaign.
"I hope that all voters will cast their votes free," he told
reporters. "This is our right that we fought for."
Besides being easy fodder for cartoonists who have revelled
in the freedom of speech enshrined in the post-apartheid
constitution, Nkandla has exposed the gulf between current and
former ANC leaders, in particular Nelson Mandela, South Africa's
first black president who died in December.
It has also become the rallying cry for those who feel the
ANC's dominance as it enters its third decade in power has
damaged the soul of the 102-year-old former liberation movement.
"It is not necessarily the huge sum paid by the public that
is the most corrupt aspect of Zuma's palatial rural estate," the
Business Day newspaper said in an editorial this week.
"It is how voraciously this wretched business has sucked in
so many others: ministers, bureaucrats, party officials and, as
the election hots up, ordinary loyalists."
Barring a major upset, the stock market and rand
should take the vote in their stride and could even gain if
South Africa's reputation for stability relative to other
emerging markets such as Brazil, Ukraine or Turkey is affirmed.
"Overall, the election is reassuringly boring," said Simon
Freemantle, an economist at Standard Bank in Johannesburg. "We
know who's going to win and we know there are not going to be
any radical policy changes. That is reassuring."
SOUTH AFRICA'S CHAVEZ
The ANC's nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance, polled
16.7 percent nationwide in 2009 and, even though it has been
gaining ground, is still seen too much as the political home of
privileged whites to have mass appeal.
Instead, the most spirited challenge has come from the
ultra-leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by expelled
ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who models himself on
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, right down to the jaunty red beret.
In his final rally at a Pretoria soccer stadium, Malema, who
wants to nationalise banks and mines and seize white-owned farms
without compensation, lambasted everything from the Nkandla
issue to foreign investors and former colonial powers.
"London must know that we're not scared of the queen," he
said to thunderous applause. "We shall not report to London. We
will report to the people. The people of South Africa will
decide how business is conducted in South Africa. We are taking
However, even the EFF's noisy emergence is likely to have
minimal overall impact, with polls putting its support at 4-5
The silver-tongued Malema himself is also likely to barred
from public office this month if a court confirms a provisional
sequestration order imposed in February because of 16 million
rand ($1.4 million) owed in unpaid taxes.
(Additional reporting by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura and Wendell
Roelf; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Tom Heneghan)