Voting begins in South Africa election with corruption, crime and land ownership dominating debate

Voters queue in the early morning sun as South Africa goes to the polls. Credit: AP

South Africans are voting on Wednesday in presidential and parliamentary elections amid issues of corruption and unemployment.

The vote comes 25 years after the end of apartheid, but despite the demise of the system of racial discrimination the country remains divided by economic inequality.

The African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela that has been in power since 1994, is likely to win a majority but will face a difficult challenge to do as well as five years ago.

Some 26 million people of the country's population of 57 million are eligible to vote.

Most of the 22,900 polling stations opened at 7am local time and were to close at 9pm (0500 to 1900 GMT).

Voters register with ANC volunteers before casting their ballot. Credit: AP

What's the state of the parties?

The African National Congress has been the dominant force in South African politics since Nelson Mandela's long walk to freedom.

ANC head President Cyril Ramaphosa has campaigned on promises to clean up his party, an acknowledgement of the problems that forced his predecessor - Jacob Zuma - to resign last year.

The widespread corruption scandals and a national unemployment rate of 27% have left many voters disillusioned giving hope to the main opposition - the Democratic Alliance, led by Mmusi Maimane - that it could yet cash in.

It has campaigned vigorously against corruption but its support among the country's black majority is limited because it is perceived as a white-run party.

The country's young voters, who make up about 20% of the electorate, largely support the EFF, which is led by charismatic firebrand Julius Malema, who broke from the ANC six years ago.

More than 40 smaller parties are also vying for power in the balloting.

  • Watch ITV News Africa Correspondent John Ray ask Cyril Ramaphosa about corruption

What are the main issues dominating the election?

Corruption: Jacob Zuma was forced to quit last year following a steady stream of corruption allegations.

Zuma is facing 16 charges of corruption, money laundering and racketeering and some of his closest allies still hold senior positions in the party.

Ramaphosa has been questioned repeatedly why - if he's as serious about tackling corruption as he says he is - he hasn't sacked them.

Over the years, millions of dollars intended to provide housing and healthcare have been diverted into the hands of corrupt government officials and yet no one has been charged.

South Africans lined up from dawn to cast their vote. Credit: AP

Unemployment and the economy: The unemployment rate is running at more than 27% and among young black South Africans one in two is out of work.

The economy is also stuttering, with GDP hovering around the 2% mark for years, well below what most observers say is needed to generate jobs, boost healthcare and education levels and haul the tens of millions out of poverty.

According to the Johannesburg think-tank the Institute of Race Relations, the economy will have to grow at almost 6% annually for almost 20 years to reduce unemployment to 10%.

  • An South African voter explains why he has been looking forward to casting his ballot

Land: The ANC has vowed to embark on a programme of seizing white-owned land without compensation, for which it needs a 67% majority to change South Africa's constitution.

Despite it being a quarter of a century since Mandela was released, land is still dominated by white ownership.

The ANC pledged to move 30% of farms into the ownership of black South Africans.

However, according to a 2017 government audit, 72% of the nation's private farmland is owned by white people, who make up 9% of the population.

But it's a balancing act for Ramaphosa as he will have to avoid scaring off potential investors by sparking a Zimbabwe-style land-grab and damaging food output.

EEF supporters have been pushing for swifter land ownership reforms. Credit: AP

Crime: South Africa had the fifth highest murder rate in the world in 2015, according to the UN.

There were some 20,300 murders last year - 3,000 up on 2014 - and there were more than 40,000 reported rapes, which is actually down on a peak in 2013.

All the main parties agree that crime - and especially violent crime - is a major election issue.

Recent weeks have witnessed many protests ahead of the election. Credit: ITV News

So what's likely to happen?

In the most likely scenario, the ANC will need to form a coalition government with another party to get the votes needed to alter the constitution.

That is likely to be the Economic Freedom Fighters, a populist left-wing party that also supports land seizures.

If the ANC's share of the vote slips below 60%, Mr Ramaphosa could be vulnerable and his party could oust him and choose a new leader.

Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane, who has campaigned vigorously against corruption, was one of the first voters at the Dobsonville polling station in Soweto, Johannesburg's largest black township.

"Soweto represents to me the home of the struggle against apartheid and it is where we are now struggling against corruption and for a new government," Mr Maimane said after casting his ballot.

Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane casts his vote. Credit: AP

How does the system work in South Africa?

Neither the president nor the parliament is elected directly.

Voters cast ballots for a national party and the number of votes won by each party determines how many representatives are sent to the legislature.

The president is the leader of the party that gets the most votes.

The day is a national holiday to encourage turnout.

South Africa was famous for its long queues of voters in the first post-apartheid election 25 years ago, but a sense of national apathy this year could be an ominous sign for the ANC.

Preliminary results will be announced from the electoral commission in the capital Pretoria, and final results are not expected for 48 hours.