Polls open in South Africa's first 'Born Free' elections

Wednesday 07 May 2014 16.46
1 of 3
Residents queue before voting at a polling station in Bekkersdal township
Residents queue before voting at a polling station in Bekkersdal township
Many South Africans are casting votes for the first time
Many South Africans are casting votes for the first time
ANC supporters celebrate during a pre-election rally near Johannesburg
ANC supporters celebrate during a pre-election rally near Johannesburg

Polls have 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.

Opinion polls suggest the allure of the ruling African National Congress as the conqueror of apartheid will prevail even among voters with no memory of white-minority rule.

Polls in South Africa's Sunday Times over the past two months have put ANC support at around 65%.

This is only a shade lower than the 65.9% it won in the 2009 election that brought President Jacob Zuma to power.

Polls opened at 5am Irish time and will close at 7pm.

A firm idea of the outcome should be available by midday on 8 May.

Nearly 25.4 million voters out of a 53 million population have registered.

The resilience of ANC support has surprised analysts who a year ago were saying it could struggle at the polls as its glorious past recedes into history and voters focus instead on the sluggish economic growth and a slew of scandals that have typified Mr Zuma's first term.

Africa's most sophisticated economy has struggled to recover from a 2009 recession - its first since the 1994 demise of apartheid - and the ANC's efforts to stimulate growth and tackle 25% unemployment have been hampered by powerful unions.

South Africa's top anti-graft agency accused Mr Zuma this year of "benefiting unduly" from a $23 million (€16.5m) state-funded security upgrade to his private home at Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Nata province that included a swimming pool and chicken run.

His personal approval ratings have dipped since the findings by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.

But at a news conference this week to conclude the ANC election campaign, the 72-year-old brushed aside suggestions the controversy was damaging the party.

"I'm not worried about Nkandla," Mr Zuma said. "The people are not worried about it. I think the people who are worried about it is you guys, the media, and the opposition."

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.

The ANC's nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance, polled just 16.7% 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 red beret.

In his final rally at a Pretoria soccer stadium, Mr 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 from the 30,000-strong crowd.

"Therefore, 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 everything."

However, even the EFF's emergence is likely to have minimal overall impact, with polls putting its support at 4-5%. But of 1.9 million "Born Free" voters aged 18-19, its key constituency, only one-in-three is registered.

Mr Malema is also likely to be barred from public office later this month if a court confirms a provisional sequestration order imposed in February because of 16 million rand (€1m) owed in unpaid taxes.

Keywords: south africa