Johannesburg - With more than 20% percent of votes counted in South Africa's landmark general election, the ruling ANC appeared set to win a fifth consecutive term in office Thursday, but with a significantly reduced margin.
After millions of determined South Africans - including hundreds of thousands of first-time "born free" voters - turned out in force, the ANC was ahead with more than two million ballots counted by 03:30 GMT.
The African National Congress held 56% of the vote, down significantly from the 66% it won at the last election, amid successive scandals surrounding its leader President Jacob Zuma
The opposition Democratic Alliance was seen nearly doubling its share of the popular vote to 30 percent, although the tallies could still change significantly.
Twenty years after South Africans of all colours wowed the world by voting to end apartheid, they had shrugged off sporadic violence to cast their ballots on Wednesday in the first poll since the death of democratic hero Nelson Mandela
His African National Congress was widely expected to win, but strong turnout in South Africa's cities could prove a boon for the party's political foes.Pansy Tlakula
, chairperson of the Election Commission, said voting "proceeded without serious incident in almost all areas.
"Very high volume of voters were reported in metro areas throughout the country."
Anything less than 60% for the ANC would be seen as a major upset and raise questions about Zuma's leadership.
Casting his ballot in his home village of Nkandla, Zuma said he expected the "results will be very good" but conceded the campaign had been "very challenging".
Zuma has been a lightning rod for criticism of the ANC and has been pilloried for the government spending R240m of taxpayers' money to upgrade his private home.
Commentators have billed this election as the last to be dominated by the memory of apartheid.
A new generation of South Africans - numbering around two million, with around 646 000 registered to vote - were born after the end of apartheid and cast their ballots for the first time.
"I am kind of nervous, thinking 'Have I made a good decision or not?'" said Lesedi Nene aged 19.'This is our right'
A record 25 million voters registered for the elections despite mounting anger over joblessness, inequality and corruption.
"People died for this right. They must not waste it," said Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu
, a liberation struggle veteran who has said openly he will not vote for the ANC this time.
The eve of the ballot was marred by isolated incidents of violence, with police and 1 850 troops deployed to several areas to keep order.
In Bekkersdal near Soweto, protesters had thrown rocks at police vehicles and set fire to a polling station just hours before it was due to open.
But residents vowed not to be dissuaded from voting. They poured into the township's 15 polling centres, many on foot and some pushed in wheelchairs and wheelbarrows.Do it for Mandela
Throughout the campaign the ANC relied heavily on past anti-apartheid glories and on the outpouring of grief over the death in December of its former leader Mandela to shore up support.
But the party's heroic past collides with South Africa's harsh present.
Polls showed many voters disaffected with the country's current crop of leaders and willing to consider the centrist opposition Democratic Alliance or left-wing firebrand Julius Malema
Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters party is less than a year old, but early results showed it winning around 4% of the vote. If sustained that could be enough for more than a dozen seats in parliament.
It has campaigned on a pledge to nationalise the mines and seize white-owned land without compensation.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the Democratic Alliance was expected to improve its vote and retain control of the Western Cape provincial government, but it still struggles to appeal to mainstream black voters.
A more complete picture of the outcome of the polls was expected by midday on Thursday.