JOHANNESBURG: South Africans vote in general elections all but certain to propel controversial ANC leader Jacob Zuma to the presidency with his vows to tackle the crushing problems of poverty.

The leader of the African National Congress (ANC) had corruption charges against him dropped just two weeks ago, but the scandal has done little to dent the popularity of a party still revered for leading the fight against apartheid.

Zuma has campaigned on promises to extend the gains of South Africa's democratic transition to the millions of people still living in poverty -- a task made all the more challenging by the economy's recent slide toward recession.

The nearly 20,000 polling stations open at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) for 14 hours of balloting.

More than 23 million people are eligible to vote for 400 parliamentarians. The new legislature then convenes two weeks later to elect the head of state, certain to be Zuma.

The 67-year-old son of a housekeeper was a stalwart of the struggle against white minority rule, and spent a decade jailed alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island.

After the first democratic elections in 1994, he rose through the party ranks to become the deputy to former president Thabo 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 the new stewardship, the party took less than a year to sack Mbeki as president.

Mbeki loyalists broke away from the party to form the new Congress of the People (COPE), which is contesting the elections along with the existing opposition Democratic Alliance and a host of smaller parties.

Polls tip the ANC to win at least 60 percent of the vote, with COPE and the DA earning about 10 percent each.

Zuma's rivals have seized upon the corruption scandal to warn that his government would be unable to crack down on graft or the alarming crime rate in a country where 50 murders are committed every day.

Prosecutors did little to dispel the corruption claims that have dogged Zuma for years, saying they remained confident they could convict him but were dropping the case because of political meddling by top investigators.

Zuma on Tuesday again denied any lingering cloud of doubt around him, and he has campaigned on promises to clean up government and improve public services.

"There is little doubt that Jacob Zuma has captured the imagination and aspirations of South Africa's poor, as few leaders since Mandela have done. This remains the wild card in the 2009 election," said Razia Khan, head of Africa research for Standard Chartered Bank.

After nine years under an aloof Mbeki, Zuma has struck a chord among many South Africans for his open embrace of traditional culture and a charisma that gives him an intuitive rapport with others.

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 herd boy to top of the nation.

South African boys pose beside a wall with a painting of ANC (African National Congress)