PRETORIA: South Africans voted massively into the early hours of Thursday in general polls all but certain to launch the ruling ANC party's popular but controversial leader Jacob Zuma into the presidency.
Polls began closing at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT), but the electoral commission said that voters waiting in line would be allowed to cast their ballot, and some were still open after midnight as results began to trickle in.
A crushing African National Congress (ANC) victory is all but certain, despite corruption allegations lingering over its leader and a challenge from the Congress of the People splinter party set up by supporters of his rival, ex-president Thabo Mbeki.
With less than 10 percent of the votes counted by 0200 GMT, the ANC was hovering around the 60 percent mark, followed by the main opposition Democratic Alliance who was already faring well in its stronghold of the Western Cape.
From before dawn, queues of voters -- some carrying chairs, wrapped in blankets and with mugs of coffee -- wound around polling stations with a record 23 million South Africans registered to cast ballots.
Turnout was so heavy in some areas that the election commission reported shortages of ballot papers and overflowing boxes at the busiest polling stations and initial results, while sparse, showed turnout of over 70 percent nationally.
The national icon of democracy Nelson Mandela cast his ballot in front of ululating crowds and a heavy media presence 15 years after his election as South Africa's first black president.
"The response is absolutely overwhelming all over the country," said Independent Electoral Commission chairwoman Brigalia Bam.
Despite an otherwise peaceful poll, a Congress of the People (COPE) official in the Eastern Cape was shot dead by three armed men in an attack on his home.
The final official tally is expected within one week.
The 67-year-old Zuma voted in his rural home village of Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal province to rapturous cheers.
"When I grew up, I did not know that this day would come," he said.
"This makes me feel great and it's a feeling far different from the one that we had under the apartheid government" -- which denied blacks the right to vote.
Corruption charges were dropped against the ANC leader just two weeks ago but the case has done little to dent the party's popularity.
"Rome was never built in a day," said supermarket worker Maggie Kotso, 47, adding the ANC state had done more in 15 years than the apartheid regime had achieved in 48 years.
"Before, we could not have stood like that in the street. The police would come and beat us. Before, there were no toilets but buckets, no roads but mud," Kotso told AFP.
"Everything has not been done well so far but we still have hope and by supporting them, they will."
Despite the gains since apartheid, public frustrations are growing with 40 percent of the workforce unemployed, a staggering crime rate, and a limping health system burdened by the world's largest caseload of people with AIDS.
Zuma has campaigned on a pro-poor ticket with promises of improved public services, but will enter office as South Africa slides toward recession.
The son of a housekeeper, he was a stalwart of the struggle against white minority rule, and spent a decade jailed alongside Mandela on Robben Island.
After the first democratic elections in 1994, he rose through the party ranks to become the deputy to former president Mbeki. But the two developed a fierce rivalry, and Mbeki sacked him in 2005.
Boosted by support from the rural poor, Zuma seized the leadership of the ANC away from Mbeki in 2007. Under his stewardship, the party took less than a year to sack Mbeki as president.
Mbeki loyalists broke away from the party to form the new COPE which is tipped to win around 10 percent of the vote as is the Democratic Alliance.
Corruption claims that have dogged Zuma for years remain a headache. When prosecutors dropped the case, they said political meddling had soiled the legal process, although they remained confident they could convict him.
But for the 43 percent of South Africa's 48 million people living on less than two dollars a day, many see themselves in the rise of a self-educated former herdboy.
Interactive graphic on South Africa where the general election is expected to elevate ruling ANC party leader Jacob Zuma to the presidency, less than a month after prosecutors dropped corruption charges against him.