By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
BEKKERSDAL, South Africa — Hundreds of police and soldiers enforced calm Wednesday as voters lined up in this trash-strewn township southwest of Johannesburg where angry gas-bomb throwing mobs have rioted repeatedly in recent months over lack of government services.
South Africans went to the polls Wednesday to cast ballots in the fifth national election since the first democratic vote brought former President Nelson Mandela to power in 1994 — and the first since the death of the liberation struggle hero in December.
Voters will choose candidates for the national parliament and provincial legislatures. In South Africa, the president is then elected by the lower house of parliament, while provincial premiers are elected by provincial legislatures.
With the African National Congress expected to garner its usual large parliamentary majority, its leader, Jacob Zuma, is considered certain to continue as the nation’s president.
Voters, many of them swathed in blankets on a chilly, misty morning, lined up before polling stations opened at 7 a.m. More than 25 million South Africans were registered to vote.
Bekkersdal has been tense in recent months, with violent, rolling protests. Angry residents stoned a team from the governing ANC campaigning in the area in March, then accused police of retaliating by firing live ammunition against them.
ANC voters in Bekkersdal who turned out early to vote Wednesday said they were relieved at the heavy police and army presence. There was unrest in the township on the eve of the vote, with mobs blocking roads, burning tires and torching two Independent Electoral Commission tents, set up as temporary polling stations.
“We’re really calling on everyone to be calm,” said state Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, visiting Bekkersdal early Wednesday. “As you can see, there are many people in the queue and people are really keen to vote, even here in Bekkersdal,” he said. “We are calling for peace and quiet and to allow people to vote.”
Nokulunga Xolwana, 34, said she was relieved that police and soldiers were on hand to ensure voters could get to the polls safely.
“People are fighting other people. It’s good to have the army and police here,” she said.
But Neliswe Nkopane, 28, holding a toddler on her hip, said the heavy security presence in Bekkersdal left a bad taste in her mouth.