S.African election could mark big political shift

South Africans have started voting in an election that could mark a big political shift if the governing African National Congress party loses its majority as opinion polls suggest.

Then led by Nelson Mandela, the ANC swept to power in South Africa's first multiracial election in 1994 and has won a majority in national elections held every five years since then, though its share of the vote has gradually declined.

If the ANC gets less than 50 per cent of the national vote it will have to seek one or more coalition partners to govern the country, its first such alliance.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses ANC supporters
President Cyril Ramaphosa is likely to stay in power, with the ANC on course to win the most votes. (AP PHOTO)

However, the ANC is still on course to win the largest share of the vote, meaning that its leader President Cyril Ramaphosa is likely to remain in office, unless he faces an internal challenge if the party's performance is worse than expected.

Voter dissatisfaction over high rates of unemployment and crime, frequent power blackouts and corruption in party ranks lies behind the ANC's gradual fall from grace.

Voters are electing nine provincial legislatures and a new national parliament, which will then choose the country's next president.

Voting stations opened on Wednesday morning, with more than 27 million people registered to vote out of a population of 62 million.

South Africa's electoral commission is expected to start releasing partial results within hours of voting stations closing.

Young boys walk past election posters in Tembisa, east of Johannesburg
Voters are choosing a new national parliament, which will then pick the country's next president. (AP PHOTO)

The commission has seven days to announce final results.

Among opposition parties vying for power is the pro-business Democratic Alliance, which won the second-largest vote share in 2019 and has formed an alliance with several smaller parties to try to broaden its appeal.

Also hoping to gain leverage, the Economic Freedom Fighters, founded by a firebrand former leader of the ANC's youth wing, want to nationalise mines and banks and seize land from white farmers to address racial and economic disparities.

Former president Jacob Zuma is backing a new party called uMkhonto we Sizwe, named after the ANC's former armed wing.

Zuma, who was forced to quit as president in 2018 after a string of scandals, has enduring influence, particularly in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.