South African voters shrugged off sporadic violence to cast their ballots in the country's fifth all-race elections Wednesday, with many of the 25 million registered voters determined to exercise their hard-won freedom.
Twenty years after South Africans of all colours wowed the world by voting to end apartheid, early-rising voters trickled into some 22,263 polling centres across the country from before dawn.
The eve of the ballot was marred by rioting, with police and the army deployed to several areas to keep order.
In Bekkersdal near Soweto, protestors threw rocks and set fire to a polling station.
But the township's residents queued up, vowing not to be dissuaded from using a right they were denied during centuries of racist rule.
"I'm here to vote for my future, I don't care about what happened here yesterday. I won't allow it to turn me away" said Nosihle Zikalala.
In the cool early morning mist, some voters danced in celebration amid the charred husk of the polling station, casting aside the detritus of the previous night's anger.
"We should fight with our votes, let our votes do the talking, not violence," said Mziwamadoda Ngceke proudly sporting the blue indelible mark on his right thumb which showed he voted.
Another improvised voting station was quickly erected in the middle of the impoverished shack-filled township, with the polls' opening delayed by only a few minutes.
State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele visited the area, calling for calm and vowing that "police will be here until voting closes."
At least one police officer has been sent to each polling station and 1,850 army troops have been deployed across the country.
As in 1994 and the three subsequent elections, the African National Congress is expected to win the election handily.
The party's electoral pitch has relied heavily on past anti-apartheid glories and on the outpouring of grief over the death of its former leader Nelson Mandela to shore up support.
"Do it for Madiba, Vote ANC!" read one prominent campaign poster, referring to the late statesman by his clan name.
For first time voter Nonhlahla, aged 20, that was a message that resonated.
"I am proud that I will be voting for the ANC," she said. "I am in a free South Africa because of the ANC."
But throughout the campaign the party's heroic past has collided with South Africa's harsh present, with the ANC unable to assuage anger at government corruption, high unemployment and poor basic services.
Many commentators have billed this election as the last to be dominated by South Africa's post-apartheid past.
The exact outcome will depend on turnout and on how the roughly one million South Africans who never knew apartheid will cast their ballots.
Polls show many are disaffected with the country's current crop of leaders and are willing to consider the opposition Democratic Alliance or left-wing firebrand Julius Malema.
Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters Party is less than a year old, but has tapped into anger that little has changed for millions of black South Africans since the advent of democracy.
The ANC is expected to win more than 60 percent of the popular vote, returning President Jacob Zuma for a second five-year term, but it is also likely to see its share of the vote slide for a second successive election.
The opposition Democratic Alliance is expected to do well in urban areas and push its share of the vote above 20 percent, but it still struggles to appeal to mainstream black voters.
Its leader Helen Zille queued with around 200 others to cast her vote at an old stone church in Rondebosch, a leafy Cape Town suburb in the shadow of Table Mountain.
She urged voters to "honour the past but own the future. And the DA is the future."
The tenor of opposition campaigning has often been shrill, amid allegations of censorship by state broadcaster SABC and one case of ballot papers being found at an ANC activist's home.
But according to Lizette Lancaster of the Institute of Security Studies the election will be free and fair despite isolated problems.
"From about October we recorded 78 incidents of election related incidents and protests, about two-thirds escalated into violence," she said.
"I think the police are well equipped."
President Zuma, who has become a lightning rod for anger over corruption and mismanagement will vote at his Nkandala homestead in rural KwaZulu-Natal.
Nkandala itself has featured prominently in the election campaign after it emerged that Zuma's administration spent $23 million of taxpayers cash on "upgrades" that include a swimming pool, amphitheatre, helipad, private clinic and cattle kraal.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and voting will close roughly 14 hours later.
While some early tallies may trickle in on Wednesday evening, the full result is not likely to be known before Friday.