A voting station in Bokmakierie.
~ Lameez Omarjee
Voting stations have closed after South Africa's general election on Wednesday, 25 years after the country's transition to democracy under the stewardship of Nelson Mandela.
Provisional polling numbers will arrive by Thursday afternoon, according to Electoral Commission (IEC) officials, with final results due to be announced on Saturday; South Africa's new president will be inaugurated on May 25.
This is the most hotly contested election in South African history, with a record 48 parties on the ballot, 19 more than last time around and nearly double the number that took part in the 1994 elections.
Pre-vote polls predicted that the ANC will win between 55 and 62% of the vote, while the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA) was predicted to get approximately 20% and the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) between 10 and 14%.
The leaders of all three major political parties cast their votes during the course of Wednesday morning.
ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa and DA head Mmusi Maimane both visited polling stations in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, an important site of resistance during the apartheid era, and former home to many prominent liberation icons. The EFF's firebrand leader, Julius Malema, voted in his home province of Limpopo.
"This is a vote that reminds us of 1994," Ramaphosa told media at the polling station. "Our people were just as excited as this because they were heralding a new period, a new future for our country. And today, this is what I am also picking up."
Against a backdrop of economic crises, spiralling crime, poor service delivery, widespread unemployment and rampant corruption, the ruling ANC hopes to bounce back from an unprecedentedly poor performance in 2016 local elections, when it ceded control of key cities to the DA.
The run-up to the vote was characterised by widespread service delivery protests across South Africa, which have drawn the extent likely winner Ramaphosa's task into sharp focus. He will also have to overcome deep-set factionalism within his own party.
The size of his expected victory at the polls will likely play a significant role in determining the extent to which he will be able to ramp up his reformist policies and root out corrupt ANC members.
READ: ANC North West denies EFF claims of ward councilor who 'voted twice', clarifies he's a party agent
The DA has also faced divisions within its ranks since Maimane became the party's first black leader in 2015. While the most recent opinion polls predicted that it will comfortably retain its control of the Western Cape province, which it has governed since it unseated the ANC there in 2009, other provinces were harder to call.
There is the possibility that the ANC will have to form coalitions to retain its majority in Gauteng, the province that incorporates major cities Johannesburg and Pretoria, as well in KwaZulu-Natal.
The likelihood of a strong showing from the EFF in Gauteng, particularly among young and first-time voters, could see it become a kingmaker in the province.
At a crowded voting station in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, Siphe Ntshikila, a 34-year-old factory worker who voted DA, said the process had been efficient and a positive experience and that there was a bigger voter turnout in the area than for the 2014 elections. "I was standing in line from 05.30 in the morning, waiting to vote," he added.
In Soweto, Ntombi Majala, a 40-year-old teacher, arrived to cast her vote draped in a large ANC banner bearing Ramaphosa's smiling face.
READ: 'Panic stations' as big parties re-activate ground operations amid low voter turn out
"We all know if it wasn't for the ANC, we wouldn't be here," she said. "They've experienced many problems, but I am happy that Ramaphosa has admitted that. We must support him with our votes so that now he can make a change."
Tamara Mathebula, a national observer for the IEC, told Al Jazeera that the general mood at polling stations across the country was upbeat and that turnout seemed encouraging overall, despite widespread media coverage of apathy among voters.
Since Monday, technical glitches, protests, and attempts to sabotage electoral officials and voting stations in various South African provinces have hindered or delayed processes at scores of voting stations. The South African National Defence Force was deployed to the particular hotspots of KwaZulu-Natal and North West Province on Wednesday.
However, Mathebula said: "In general, the situation is good. There is nothing to be drastically alarmed about."
Find everything you need to know about the 2019 National and Provincial Government Elections at our News24 Elections site, including the latest news and detailed, interactive maps for how South Africa has voted over the past 3 elections. Make sure your News24 app is updated to access all our elections coverage in one place.