Voting underway in South Africa’s fourth democratic poll (Lead)

Soweto (South Africa), April 22 (Inditop) Voting was under way Wednesday in South Africa’s fourth general election since the end of apartheid, in which the ruling African National Congress is aiming to retain its overwhelming majority in the face of new opposition.

Early voter turnout on a cold morning was lower at some polling stations than in previous elections since the country’s first, euphoric multi-racial polls in 1994.

Around 40 people were waiting outside a high school in Soweto township outside Johannesburg, some wrapped in blankets against the cold, when voting got underway shortly after 7 a.m. (0500 GMT).

Godfry Nontompana, 32, who headed the queue, had turned up at 4.30 a.m. but seeing no-one else queueing went home and returned an hour later.

Ruth Ntombana, 56, was the first to cast her votes for the 400-seat National Assembly and the provincial legislature at the school that lies off the famous Vilakazi street, once home to two Nobel peace prize winners – former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu.

“I’m voting, I’m voting!,” Ntombana, who was draped in a plaid shawl and had given her vote to the ANC, said. “I like my party, I can’t go this way and that. I go straight!,” she said, while warning ANC leader Jacob Zuma: “We are poor. The next president must do what he promised us.”

Laurence Ntambo, a gap-toothed 62-year-old retired truck driver, also voted for the former liberation movement. “We were struggling in this country for a long time. Before, where I was working, blacks had to sleep on the floor of the garage. Everything has changed now. Blacks and whites are together.”

The election, which is being observed by thousands of domestic and over 300 international observers, appeared to have gotten off to a generally smooth start with only minor delays reported in some places.

A little over 23 million people are registered to elect parties to the 400-seat National Assembly and nine provincial legislatures, 2.4 million more than in the 2004 elections.

The emergence of a new opposition party, the Congress of the People (COPE), born out of a split in the ANC last year, has injected excitement into a poll that would otherwise have been a wave-through for Mandela’s party.

The ANC is still forecast to easily win but after 15 years in power is battling to retain its majority of 70 percent amid rising levels of discontent at growing inequality and stubbornly high poverty levels.

The ANC has built over 3 million free and low-cost houses since 1994 but close to a million people still live in tin shacks and a third of the population lives below the poverty line.

“From 96 until now I’ve been waiting for a (government) house. They say I’m on the list and I must wait,” Sibongile Dlomo, a mother of four said in Soweto.

Voting at 19,726 polling stations nationwide is due to close at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT).

Thousands of expatriate South Africans already cast their ballot last week.

Final results are not expected until Friday.

South Africa has a proportional representation system, which means voters vote for a party rather than a candidate. Seats in parliament are then distributed according to each party’s tally. Parliament then sits to elect the president.