South Africans go to the polls on 22 April in the fourth national and provincial elections since the end of apartheid in 1994.
More than 23 million people, including 16,000 of the South African diaspora, have registered to vote in what is being billed as the biggest election since the end of white minority rule.
How do the elections work?
The country has a bicameral parliament consisting of the National Assembly with 400 seats and the National Council of Provinces (formerly the Senate) with 90 seats.
Election to the National Assembly is based on proportional representation with half of the seats filled from regional party lists and the other half from national party lists.
The lists are "closed" with voters casting a ballot for a single list, not individual candidates.
POLL IN NUMBERS
23m registered voters
19,700 polling stations
9,130 candidates - 3,511 female
2,000 soldiers deployed
4,000 local observers, 153 from abroad
The National Assembly is responsible for choosing the president, passing laws and overseeing the work of the government.
The National Council of Provinces is also involved in the law-making process, but its main focus is to ensure that provincial interests are taken into account by the national government.
Each of South Africa's nine provinces elects a provincial legislature consisting of between 30 and 80 members, depending on the population size of the province.
These legislatures have the power to raise provincial taxes and make laws.
Premiers of the provinces are elected by members of the provincial legislature.
What is different about this election?
The rise of the Congress of the People (Cope) has reenergized South Africa's electoral landscape and threatens the African National Congress's two-thirds majority in parliament.
According to the privately-owned press, the formation of Cope by ANC dissidents has acted as a strong catalyst in galvanising voters.
The party was set up last year by a group of senior ANC officials who backed former President Thabo Mbeki, after he lost control of the ruling party to Jacob Zuma.
Cope is reported to have struggled to launch an effective election campaign and maintain party unity, but surveys nonetheless suggest the party may gain up to 10% of the vote.
However, the ANC is widely expected to retain its majority in parliament, which would lead to Mr Zuma becoming president, succeeding Kgalema Motlanthe.
What are the issues?
The ANC has campaigned on its record of delivering steady economic growth and rolling out services such as housing, water and electricity to poor people.
ECONOMY: Unemployment - 22%; 34% live on less than $2 a day
CRIME: More than 50 murders, 35 carjackings and 150 rapes a day
HEALTH:HIV affects up to 5.7m people; nearly 1,000 a day die of Aids-related illnesses
However, some criticise the government for not doing enough for the very poorest. They say the economic growth has only benefited a select few and point out that unemployment remains high.
The government's black empowerment programme has been tainted by accusations that the main beneficiaries have been those with good connections to the ANC.
Some say that corruption by local ANC officials has slowed down the provision of services - this was a key factor in the attacks on foreigners last year.
The opposition have also stressed the allegations of corruption against Mr Zuma, even though these were recently dropped by state prosecutors, who said there had been political interference in the case.
South Africa remains one of the world's most dangerous countries and crime is also a campaign issue for the opposition.
Land is an issue for the ANC, which says it will speed up its reform programme, while reassuring white farmers that it will not forcibly seize their property.
The former ANC government of Thabo Mbeki was strongly criticised for not doing more to help the 5.7 million people infected with HIV - more than any other country in the world. But a new health minister is now pursuing new policies.
Mr Zuma has also pledged to expand education and reduce the country's high levels of illiteracy.
Which are the main parties?
The IEC says 156 political parties have registered ahead of the polls, 117 of them at national level and 39 at provincial level only. The most important parties are:
African National Congress (ANC)
The ANC is currently South Africa's ruling party and occupies 297 seats in parliament. It was founded in 1912 as an organisation that catered to black interests and has a membership of 621,000. Under its charismatic leader Nelson Mandela, it spearheaded the fight against white minority rule. Current party leader Jacob Zuma has recently and controversially had corruption charges against him dropped.
Democratic Alliance (DA)
The DA was formed in 2000 when the Democratic Party and New National Party merged and has grown to become the strongest opposition party with 47 National Assembly members. It is seen as mainly a party of the white and coloured (mixed-race) minorities. Its leader is Helen Zille. The DA has filed a legal challenge against the dropping of corruption charges against Mr Zuma.
Congress of the People (Cope)
A breakaway from the ANC, Cope was founded in November 2008 by former Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota and former Gauteng Province Premier Mbhazima Shilowa in response to "threats to constitutional order emerging from the ANC". Its presidential candidate is Rev Mvume Dandala.
Independent Democrats (ID)
The ID was founded by Patricia de Lille in 2003 and has a populist, anti-corruption platform. It is the first political party in South Africa to be led by a woman and has eight seats in parliament. The bulk of its support is in Western Cape Province.
Registered Voters by Province
Abroad - 16,240
Eastern Cape - 3,038,478
Free State - 1,384,177
Gauteng - 5,448,121
KwaZulu-Natal - 4,455,983
Limpopo - 2,248,044
Mpumalanga - 1, 690,034
Northern Cape - 553,645
North West - 1,653,234
Western Cape - 2, 682,506
Total - 23,170,462
Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP)
The IFP was founded in 1975 by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, but only became a political party in 1990. It draws its support largely from the Zulu community in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal and the migrant workers' hostels in the metropolitan areas of Gauteng. It currently holds 23 seats in the National Assembly.
United Democratic Movement (UDM)
Retired Maj Gen H Bantubonke (Bantu) Holomisa co-founded the UDM in 1997 and currently serves as its president. In 2004, nine members of this social-democratic party were elected to parliament.
How has the campaign gone?
The campaign has generally been pretty peaceful, although tension has been high in parts of KwaZulu-Natal.
The ANC and IFP have been swapping allegations about interference with electioneering, intimidation of party workers and assaults. In an effort to avoid violence, the government has deployed 23,000 police and soldiers to likely flashpoints.
The IFP, DA, UDM and Cope have all accused the ANC of buying votes with government food parcels - a charge the party emphatically denies.
In Johannesburg, the ANC has called on the "mischievous forces of darkness" to stop putting up fake ANC posters.
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