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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 April, 2004, 19:21 GMT 20:21 UK
SA polls close without incident
Former South African President FW De Klerk after voting in Cape Town
South Africa's last apartheid leader cast his vote too
Polls have closed in South Africa where people of all races have cast their vote in the country's third democratic general election since apartheid.

The ruling African National Congress is almost certain to win its third victory since all-race elections began in 1994.

Despite this, a good turnout was recorded among the 21 million voters.

Fears of a repeat of past election-day violence in the two most closely contested states, Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal, proved ungrounded.

The ANC could gain as much as a two-thirds majority and the new parliament looks set to elect President Thabo Mbeki for a second five-year term, BBC correspondents report.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Having a vote doesn't put food in your belly... SA wake up and smell the country crumbling around your ears
Cath, New Zealand

Such was the enthusiasm on Wednesday that some turned up even before polling stations opened at 0700 local time (0500 GMT).

People still in queues when polls closed officially will be allowed to cast their ballots, Reuters reported.

Voters cheered when former President Nelson Mandela voted in suburban Johannesburg.

"I feel elated that I can be able to assert my right as a citizen," he said, smiling broadly.

Bitter memory

President Mbeki's expected return to office will come despite criticism of his handling of HIV/Aids, poverty, unemployment and crime.

South Africans share their feelings as they vote.

The BBC's Barnaby Phillips in Johannesburg notes that opposition parties have had to struggle to win over substantial numbers of black people.

Apartheid is a bitter memory, he says, and South Africans still tend to vote along racial lines.

Thousands of local election observers were deployed to ensure voting was free and fair.

After the polls closed at 2100 local time (1900 GMT), counting began at all 16,966 polling stations.

The results are due to be verified and electronically sent through to the capital, Pretoria.

There huge display boards will constantly be updated with results from the national election and the race for the provincial government seats.

Close races

The main electoral battleground was expected to be KwaZulu-Natal, which the ANC was hoping to take from the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party.

THE PAST DECADE
President Mbeki votes in Pretoria
Achievements
1.6m new houses built for poor
Stable economy, low inflation
70% households electrified
9m access to water
Challenges
30% unemployment
5.3m with HIV/Aids
Massive wealth inequality
Crime

More than 20,000 police and troops were on duty to ensure that violence which marred previous polls there was not repeated.

Last week, three people were killed and correspondents said parts of the province were still very tense.

IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi said that the shooting overnight of an IFP official and the alleged harassment of traditional Zulu leaders were "signs that the election is not free and fair" in the province.

Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota was involved in a brief shouting match with one of Mr Buthelezi's supporters near IFP stronghold Ulindi.

Mr Lekota was furious after being told he "needed Buthelezi's permission to be in the area," reports the AFP news agency.

"I don't need anybody's permission to be here," he retorted.

The result is also expected to be close in the Western Cape, where the opposition Democratic Alliance has strong support.

The DA has promised free anti-retroviral drugs for all South Africans and hopes to increase its share of the vote.

Aids groups estimate that more than five million people in South Africa are living with HIV.

A report issued on Tuesday said that some 800,000 people would be unable to vote either because they were too ill or were looking after someone incapacitated by Aids.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Barnaby Phillips
"People spoke of an enduring faith, in democracy and the ANC"




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