The ANC majority is threatened by MK, DA and EFF

South Africans will vote in the most important elections since the racist apartheid system ended in 1994.

More than 27 million people are registered to cast their vote in a survey that highlights growing political fragmentation after 30 years of democracy.

A record 70 parties and 11 independents are contesting an election in which South Africans will vote for a new parliament and nine provincial legislatures.

“The enormous growth of parties shows disillusionment with the old big parties or, the cynics would say, people are looking for a chance to get into parliament and earn a pension,” political analyst Richard Calland told the BBC.

In power since anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela led it to victory at the end of white minority rule, the African National Congress (ANC) is seeking a seventh term.

Although confident of a “decisive victory”, opinion polls have consistently suggested that the party will lose its parliamentary majority for the first time, forcing it to form a coalition with one or more opposition parties.

“We are entering the next phase of our democracy and it will be a big transition,” Professor Calland told the BBC.

“Either we will become a more competitive and mature democracy, or our politics will become more fractured,” he added.

The campaign has been dominated by widespread corruption in government, overwhelmingly high levels of unemployment, especially among young people, deteriorating public services and rampant crime.

The main opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has signed a pact with 10 other parties, agreeing to form a coalition government if they win enough votes to dislodge the ANC from power.

But this is highly unlikely as the ANC is expected to remain the largest party, putting it in pole position to lead a coalition.

It won 57.5% of the vote in the last election, compared to 21% for the DA.

Former president Jacob Zuma caused a huge stir when he announced in December that he was leaving the ANC to campaign for a new party, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), which translates as Spear of the Nation.

Although he has been banned from running for parliament due to a contempt of court conviction, his name will continue to appear on ballot papers as MK leader.

Opinion polls suggest MK will get around 10% of the vote. He is expected to do especially well in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, where tensions have been high and some incidents of violence have been reported during the campaign.

“The elections in KwaZulu-Natal could become very complicated – expect a lot of disputes and contestations over the results,” Professor Calland said.

Women represent 55% of registered voters – around 15 million, according to statistics published by the electoral commission.

In terms of age group, voter registration is highest among those between 30 and 39 years old. They represent almost seven million of the 26.7 million voters.

But, according to Professor Calland, around 13.7 million eligible voters have not registered, and most of them (eight million) are under 30 years old.

“They have turned their backs on our young democracy. They are assumed to have lost hope, feel economically excluded and see no viable opposition,” he added.

This view was confirmed by Keabetswe Maleka, 29, who lives in Soweto, which was the epicenter of a student uprising against apartheid in 1976.

In an interview with BBC Africa Daily podcast host Mpho Lakaje, he said he would not vote due to poor public services and because he is unemployed.

“I’m looking for a job. It’s okay,” he said.

Another Soweto resident, Mawela Rezant, 66, said she would definitely vote in the hope that the next government would address unemployment and crime.

“I hope to see our economy grow. I hope to see the police in full force,” he added.

Police and the military have been deployed to polling stations across the country to ensure that voting takes place peacefully and that ballots are not stolen.

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