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South Africans are voting in the most competitive elections since the end of apartheid

By Wendell Roelf and Kopano Gumbi

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (Reuters) -South Africans voted on Wednesday in the most competitive election since the end of apartheid, with opinion polls suggesting the African National Congress (ANC) could lose its parliamentary majority after 30 years in government.

Queues formed in the main cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban as polling stations started around 7am (0500 GMT), with queues also seen in the morning chill in townships on the outskirts of cities and on the countryside.

“I want to see change in South Africa,” said Bongile Mkunqa, 53, an unemployed man who came to vote in Langa, the oldest black township in Cape Town.

“We need to get more jobs. I don’t feel happy now because I am struggling. It has been a long time since the ANC was in charge in the country, but that has not changed.”

Voters at polling stations across the country cited high unemployment and crime rates, frequent power outages and corruption in the ANC’s ranks as reasons why they would vote for opposition parties, but others were wary of change.

“Since voting started (in 1994), I have voted and I have only voted for one party, the ANC,” said Charles Louw, 62, a retiree who voted in Alexandra, a sprawling township east of Johannesburg.

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He said he distrusted promises from opposition parties to create jobs, end power cuts or tackle crime.

“The ANC has tried, they are there, they have experience, they know how to comply with everything. But the new parties, where will they start?” he said.

The ANC, then led by Nelson Mandela, came to power in South Africa’s first multiracial elections in 1994 and has won a majority in national elections every five years since, although its share of the vote has gradually declined .

If it falls below 50% this time, the ANC will have to make a deal with one or more smaller parties to govern – uncharted and potentially choppy waters for a young democracy that has until now been dominated by a single party.

The ANC is still on course to win the majority of the vote, meaning its leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa, is likely to remain in office unless he faces an internal challenge if the party’s performance be worse than expected.

More than 27 million South Africans are registered to vote at more than 23,000 polling stations in schools, sports centers and even a funeral home in Pretoria. Voting continues until 9:00 PM (7:00 PM GMT).

Voters will elect provincial assemblies in each of the country’s nine provinces and a new national parliament that will then elect the next president.

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‘MOST CONSEQUENTIAL ELECTION’

After voting at a polling station in Soweto, a large township outside Johannesburg, Ramaphosa said the ANC had run a strong campaign.

“I have no doubt in my heart that the people will place their trust in the African National Congress,” he said.

John Steenhuisen, leader of the pro-business Democratic Alliance (DA) party, which won the second largest share of votes in the last 2019 elections, urged voters to turn out in large numbers to bring about change in South to bring to Africa.

“This is the most consequential election since 1994,” he said after casting his vote in Durban.

Asked about possible coalitions, Steenhuisen said that if electoral calculations allow, it would be preferable for parties other than the ANC to come together to govern – an outcome that seems highly unlikely based on opinion polls.

“I don’t think we are going to solve South Africa’s problems by keeping the same people around the same table and making the same bad decisions with the same bad results for South Africa,” he said.

Etienne Olivier, 64, a logistics manager wearing a shirt printed with the South African flag, said he voted for the DA because it had a good record of competent governance in the Western Cape province , the only province not controlled by the ANC.

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“They seem to be the only reasonable solution that can solve this, the corruption and whatever is happening in South Africa,” he said after casting his vote in Johannesburg.

Other opposition parties seeking to loosen the ANC’s grip on power include the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), founded by Julius Malema, a former leader of the ANC’s youth wing. They want to nationalize mines and banks and confiscate land from white farmers to address racial and economic disparities.

Former president Jacob Zuma has fallen out with the ANC and is backing a new party called uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), named after the ANC’s former armed wing. Zuma, who was forced to resign as president in 2018 after a series of scandals, has an enduring influence, especially in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.

The Election Commission is expected to start releasing partial results within hours of polling stations closing. The commission has seven days to announce the final results, but in the last election, which was also held on Wednesday, it happened on Saturday.

(Additional reporting by Tannur Anders, Nqobile Dludla, Anait Miridzhanian and Bhargav AcharyaWriting by Estelle Shirbon and Alexander WinningEditing by Gareth Jones, Andrew Heavens and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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