JOHANNESBURG/CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africans voting in a national election on Wednesday expressed frustration at rampant corruption, high unemployment and racial inequalities that persist 25 years after the first all-races poll marked the end of white minority rule.
The vote for a new parliament and nine provincial legislatures is the toughest electoral test yet for the African National Congress, which has ruled South Africa since that 1994 vote. Nelson Mandela’s former liberation party is hoping to reverse or at least arrest a slide in support.
“I’m a member of the ANC but I didn’t vote for them this time,” said construction worker Thabo Makhene, 32, in the commercial hub of Johannesburg.
“They need to catch a wake-up. The way they run the state, mishandling state funds, they’ve lost their morals.”
The elections are the first test of national sentiment since President Cyril Ramaphosa replaced scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma as head of state in February 2018 after four years as his deputy.
Queues built up at polling stations throughout the day. Officials have said the results could be announced on Saturday.
Opinion polls suggest the ANC will again win a majority of the National Assembly’s 400 seats but analysts say its margin of victory may fall as efforts to address racial disparities in land ownership, housing and services falter. The country remains one of the most unequal in the world, according to the World Bank.
Joblessness, with more than 27 percent out of work, high crime and corruption have also fueled discontent.
Pete Mokokosi, a 77-year-old pensioner, said he felt South Africans needed change, a better economy, education and jobs.
“The weather changes everyday, why can’t we?” he said as he waited to vote in the township of Soweto in Johannesburg.
In Cape Town, Anneke du Plessis, 43, who works at a media company, said her vote was to end corruption.
“We have to unite and stop this downward spiral. This is the most important vote since 1994,” she said.
Some voters said they would back the ANC.
“They have made mistakes before but this time we have the right man,” said Alpheus Zihle, 69, a pensioner in Alexandra township in Johannesburg.
Polls are due to close at 9:00 p.m. local time (1900 GMT) but may be kept open to allow those in the queues to vote.
Some polling stations around Johannesburg opened late or did not have voting materials, while in the Western Cape Province officials said ballot papers were running out at some locations.
Five of the more than 22,000 polling stations had still not opened as of 1500 GMT due to unrest in the communities, the Electoral Commission said without elaborating. Efforts were being made to resolve the issues.
Hundreds of people covered in blankets and coats in the chilly winter morning gathered outside a polling station in Soweto, where Ramaphosa cast his vote.
“We’ve made mistakes, but we are sorry about those mistakes, and we are saying our people should reinvest their confidence in us,” the president said. “We are going to correct the bad ways of the past.”
The ANC’s biggest challengers are the main opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
The ANC won 62 percent of the vote in 2014’s parliamentary election, down from 2009 and far short of its best result, 69 percent in 2004 under President Thabo Mbeki.
Analysts have put that falling support down to graft allegations against government officials, a slowing economy, high unemployment and demands from black citizens for more equitable distribution of land.
Ramaphosa — who became ANC leader after narrowly defeating a faction allied with Zuma — has promised to improve service delivery, create jobs and fight corruption. But his reforms have been held up by divisions and opposition within his own party.
Africa’s most industrialized economy grew at an estimated 0.8 percent in 2018 after recovering from a recession in the first half of the year when a drought hit farming, although blackouts at power utility Eskom continue to drag on activity. Growth is forecast at 1.5 percent this year.
The center-right DA won 22 percent of the parliamentary vote in 2014. It appointed its first black leader Mmusi Maimane in 2015 and made headlines by leading coalition victories in local government elections in Pretoria and Johannesburg a year later.
But splits within the party could see its support wane.
“Fear says to us let’s stick with what we know, hope says let’s bring change,” Maimane said after casting his ballot in Soweto, where he grew up.
The EFF’s leader Julius Malema, a fiery orator who formed the party in 2013 after he was expelled from the ANC, cast his vote in the northern city of Polokwane.
“If you need change, the EFF is the way to go,” said Malema, whose party won 6 percent of the vote in 2014, making it the third-largest presence in parliament.
It wants to nationalize mines and banks, and played a key role in holding Zuma to account for spending state money on non-security upgrades to his private residence.
But assurances of change were not enough for some voters.
“When it comes to election time, everyone is going to say they are going to do this and that for you. But once they get the votes ... there’s not much done,” said 30-year-old Nathen Irusan in the town of Tongaat, about 37 kilometers (23 miles)north of Durban.
Additional reporting by James Macharia, Tiisetso Motsoeneng, Emma Rumney, Naledi Mashishi, Lynette Ndabambi, Onke Ngcuka Nqobile Dludla and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo in Johannesburg, Tanisha Heiberg in Pretoria, Sumaya Hisham in Cape Town, Rogan Ward in Durban, Siyabonga Sishi and Marius Bosch in Polokwane; Writing by James Macharia and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Editing by Catherine Evans