The ANC looks assured a fourth straight win since defeating white minority rule in 1994 under Nelson Mandela and will make its leader Jacob Zuma president weeks after he was able to get corruption charges dropped on a technicality. But the party faces an unprecedented challenge from opposition hoping to capitalize on frustration over corruption, poverty and crime, and could lose the two-thirds majority that gives it the right to change the constitution.
"We are entering a post-liberation era. People are talking about new issues and challenges and there's also a new generation that's not attached to the liberation struggle," said independent political analyst David Monyae.
ANC to keep dominance
Many analysts believe the ANC, whose anti-apartheid credentials make it the choice for millions of black voters, will win between 60 and 66 percent of the vote, compared to nearly 70 percent in 2004. "The ANC is more likely to lose its two-thirds majority than to retain it," said Control Risks consultancy, putting the chances at 55 versus 40 percent.
A smaller ANC majority would cheer investors keen to see its grip loosened. Despite Zuma's assurances, they fear he may bow to leftist allies who say policies credited with South Africa's longest spell of growth have harmed the poor.
But as South Africa heads towards its first recession in 17 years, its mines and factories hard hit by the global downturn, Zuma's room for policy change is limited. Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, a market favorite, is expected to stay for now.
"Our economy won't become ideological, it will stay rational," Manuel told Italy's Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper. A key challenge to the ANC comes from a new party formed by those loyal to ex-President Thabo Mbeki, ousted by the ANC amid allegations he meddled in the fraud case against Zuma, which was dropped.
The first credible black opposition party, the Congress of the People, or COPE, has some support among the growing black middle class, but has struggled to win over the poor. Presidential candidate Mvume Dandala said the new party was still optimistic it could bring change. "It is a baby with teeth. We can bite and I do believe the people of South Africa have heard our message," he said.
The official opposition Democratic Alliance, resurgent under new leader Helen Zille, a white South African, also hopes to boost its presence in parliament.