JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Polling stations closed Wednesday evening in elections in South Africa that are expected to see the ruling African National Congress return to power despite a vigorous challenge from opposition parties seeking to capitalize on discontent with corruption and economic inequality.
Voting in the fifth all-race polls in South Africa since the end of white minority rule in 1994 wrapped up at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT) and South Africa's election commission said the first results were expected in the following hours. Officials will declare final results no earlier than Saturday, allowing time to address any objections to the process.
The election commission said most voting went smoothly. About 25 million South Africans, roughly half the population, registered to vote in the parliamentary elections that will also determine the president.
Some 22,000 voting stations opened at schools, places of worship, tribal authority sites and hospitals, and several dozen vehicles serving as mobile voting stations visited remote areas.
Wednesday was declared a public holiday to encourage voting. Nearly 2,000 military personnel assisted police to make sure that the elections were peaceful around the country.
Retired archbishop Desmond Tutu cast his vote in Cape Town and said South Africans should be thankful that they can vote peacefully.
"I'm thinking of Ukraine. I'm thinking of South Sudan, you know, all of those things happening there," the South African Press Association quoted Tutu as saying. Recalling the violent struggle against white minority rule that brought about the country's democracy, he said: "People were imprisoned. People suffered. So we mustn't waste it. We must keep remembering we got this at a very great price."
The African National Congress, which led the fight against apartheid, has dominated politics since Nelson Mandela was elected as South Africa's first black president in 1994. On the ruling party's watch, millions of people have gained access to water and other basic services, but protests routinely erupt in areas where residents say the government has ignored their needs.
There is also increasing concern about corruption. President Jacob Zuma has become enmeshed in a scandal surrounding more than $20 million in state spending on his private home in the Nkandla area, though he denies any wrongdoing and has promised to work against graft. Zuma voted Wednesday after standing in line at a primary school in Nkandla, urging other South Africans to do the same because it was "probably the most important thing to do in this democracy."
In the last election in 2009, the African National Congress fell just short of a two-thirds majority. Its main rivals this year are the Democratic Alliance, a centrist party led by former journalist and anti-apartheid activist Helen Zille, and the Economic Freedom Fighters, headed by Julius Malema, a former head of the ruling party's youth league who wants to redistribute wealth to the poor.
Electoral officers had to help the first inmate to vote at the Witbank Corrections Center, a prison in South Africa's Mpumalanga province, after he stepped out of the voting booth and said, "I don't know how to do this," the press agency reported. The sound of keys and the clatter of handcuffs filled a passage as prisoners were uncuffed before entering the voting station. Smiling widely, some prisoners placed green ID books in their shirt pockets after voting.
Three voting tents were set on fire during overnight protests in Bekkersdal, a township in South Africa's most populous province, Gauteng, where residents have complained about what they describe as inadequate government services, according to Eyewitness News, a South African media outlet. Dozens of police and military vehicles have deployed in Bekkersdal in recent days.
Two ruling party officials tasked to monitor a polling station in the Northern Cape province were killed in a car accident early Wednesday, local media quoted party officials as saying.
In Itsoseng town, west of Johannesburg, first-time voter Julia Phokompe, 28, cast her ballot at a voting station set up in a church.
"It's a feeling I can't explain," SAPA quoted Phokompe as saying. "I think I've made a huge difference in my life."