South Africans Vote, Many Hoping for Change as Seismic as Mandela’s Rise

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Tension, excitement and uncertainty consumed South Africa on Wednesday as millions cast their ballots in an election that could end the monopoly on power of the African National Congress, the party that has governed since leading the defeat of apartheid 30 years ago.

Volunteers with the party worked feverishly to hold onto their majority, shuttling voters to polling stations, extolling the party’s virtues from loudspeakers on pickup trucks and handing out the party’s bright yellow T-shirts. Top party officials chanted alongside these foot soldiers, as if rallying them for battle.

Pollsters have widely predicted that the party will win a plurality but draw less than 50 percent of the vote for the first time. If that happens, it will be forced to ally with one or more other parties in order to form a government and remain in power.

Voters are electing a National Assembly, which will choose whether to keep or unseat President Cyril Ramaphosa. They are also electing provincial legislators. Results are expected to be announced this weekend.

With 51 parties challenging the African National Congress, or A.N.C., on the national ballot, voters were awash in choices — amping up the suspense for individual voters and the nation.

“Can you believe, here I am and I’m still not sure who to vote for?” said Kedibone Makhubedu, 47, as she lined up outside of a community center in the township of Soweto.

Ms. Makhubedu, who works for an insurance company, said she had always voted for the A.N.C., but is anxious about the economy and her 17-year-old daughter’s prospects of making a living.

“It’s the first time I’m actually torn,” she said.

At the tens of thousands of polling sites around the country, colorful party flags flapped in the wind. Party volunteers blasted hymns from the era of the anti-apartheid struggle, and danced the familiar jig known as toyi-toyi.

Opposition party supporters hoped that this vote would produce a turning point for South Africa as seismic as when Nelson Mandela rose to the presidency with the A.N.C. after the first democratic election in 1994.

“Today, I’m feeling the same excitement that I was feeling in 1994,” said Beki Zulu, who voted on Wednesday for the first time since that first election. He said he was inspired this year by Jacob Zuma, the former South African president and A.N.C. leader who is now heading a new breakaway party, uMkhonto weSizwe.

This ritual of democracy was taking place in a country that looks very different than it did when this exercise first played out, but that is filled with many of the same anxieties: joblessness, a lack of housing, poor educational opportunities.

Voters emerged from polling stations with ink-stained thumbs demanding change — even those who stuck with the A.N.C.

For the first time, South Africans had the option to vote for independent candidates who were not running on party tickets, and had to fill out three long ballots, instead of two. The new system caused delays at many polling stations, with voters waiting in slow, snaking lines.

Jenneth Makhathini waited for her polling station to open in the village of Siweni in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, standing on a paved road, surrounded by power lines and homes made of cement — none of which existed the first time she lined up to vote three decades ago. Back then, the houses were made of mud, the roads of gravel and the light came from candles.

Despite embracing modernization, she was only reluctantly casting her ballot for the A.N.C. this year, disillusioned that young people are struggling to find work, wages are low and public hospitals are overwhelmed.

“I’m doing it, but there’s less hope now,” Ms. Makhathini, a 54-year-old educator, said of voting for the ruling party.

But even as the party’s popularity has slid because of a deterioration in living conditions and corruption, voters have not been able to let go so easily.

During previous election cycles, South Africans said, they largely assumed that the A.N.C. would maintain its absolute majority. But the party, which won nearly 58 percent in the last vote in 2019, has been polling in the low 40s this year, fueling a greater expectation that something could change in this election, voters said.

The weak polling numbers have also motivated A.N.C. officials, who focused during the campaign on engaging disenchanted supporters who had stopped showing up to vote. With turnout appearing strong at many voting stations, it was anyone’s guess whether that was a good sign for the incumbent party — signaling that its supporters were coming out again — or the many challengers, who are hoping to activate new voters.

One former A.N.C. liberation fighter decided to turn out for this election, after last voting in 1994. But it wasn’t for his old party.

Isaac Modise, voting in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, said he was supporting Mr. Zuma’s party. It was his way of motivating the A.N.C. to improve, said Mr. Modise, 66.

“We want the A.N.C. to go back and be an organization of the people,” he said.