JOHANNESBURG — Millions of South Africans cast ballots on Wednesday, voting for the first time since President Cyril Ramaphosa assumed power early last year with promises to renew both his corruption-ridden party and the beleaguered nation.
A quarter-century after the end of apartheid captured imaginations worldwide, Mr. Ramaphosa and his party, the African National Congress, faced an electorate increasingly disillusioned with the state of South Africa’s democracy. The vote is partly a referendum on Mr. Ramaphosa, whose personal popularity has consistently polled higher than his party’s.
Many of the A.N.C.’s traditional supporters approve of him, polls show. But they question whether he can outflank powerful party rivals and root out the endemic corruption that has come to define the A.N.C., Nelson Mandela’s once celebrated liberation movement.
“I got trust in Cyril Ramaphosa — he’s done a lot already against corruption,” said Reckson Chauke, 57, a steelworker who said the president had renewed his lifelong faith in the A.N.C.
But standing in the same voting line in Alexandra, a black township in Johannesburg, Caroline Chauke, who is not related, said she was going to vote against the A.N.C. for the first time since she began voting in 1994.
“I like Ramaphosa,” said Ms. Chauke, 48, who works as a housekeeper. “But he’s under the A.N.C. The same corrupt people in the party are in charge.” She declined to say which party she would support.
Mr. Ramaphosa made the battle against corruption a pillar of his campaign. At his party’s last rally before Election Day, he addressed widespread criticism that no party official has been held accountable for corruption since he forced Jacob Zuma, his scandal-tainted predecessor, out of office more than a year ago.
“We are going to fight against corruption despite stern opposition from those who benefited,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in an unmistakable reference to members of his party.
But even the last days of the campaign offered constant, and sometimes unusual, reminders of the challenges he faces. A top A.N.C. leader accused the government of spying on him. And a long-running government inquiry on public corruption turned to the issue of rampant looting of the state-owned transport company.
Nationally, the party, which has governed continuously since 1994, is all but certain to win enough votes to ensure that Mr. Ramaphosa secures the five-year presidential term.
Election officials said they hoped to announce final tallies on Saturday, though the results are expected to be evident by Friday.
But the outcome of two other issues — the A.N.C.’s margin of victory and its hold on the provinces, especially the nation’s richest, Gauteng — could have far-reaching repercussions. In the last general election, in 2014, the A.N.C. won 62 percent of the vote nationwide. It also won all nine provinces, except the Western Cape, the nation’s second-richest, which for the past decade has been in the hands of the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition.
A significant win nationwide could hand Mr. Ramaphosa a popular mandate in his anti-corruption drive. But a dip below the symbolically important threshold of 60 percent — which the A.N.C. has never dropped beneath — could embolden his rivals within his party, many of whom have close ties to Mr. Zuma.
The results in Gauteng — home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the commercial and political capitals — could speed up the realignment of the nation’s politics. Polls show that the province is a key battleground in the election, with the A.N.C. at risk of being forced into a coalition.
To try to keep the province, the A.N.C. fought hard in townships like Alexandra, where Mr. Ramaphosa campaigned personally. Though it has been a party stronghold, many township residents were looking to alternatives.
“The A.N.C. has always been in charge in Gauteng, but what have they accomplished?” said Bonang Kgwadi, 18, who was voting with her sister, Emily, 21.
Both first-time voters, they said they supported the Democratic Alliance because they had been impressed by its stewardship over the Western Cape.
Support for the party has been falling in Gauteng in the past five years, especially among black middle-class voters angered by corruption. In local elections in 2016, many turned against the party, which ended up losing both Johannesburg and Pretoria. The cities are now led by fragile coalitions between the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, a splinter group led by former A.N.C. leaders.
Mr. Ramaphosa — an A.N.C. veteran who made a fortune in business before returning to politics in 2012 — campaigned hard to win back alienated black professionals in the cities. He is particularly popular among these voters as well as white South Africans.
But politicians and voters on the left, especially the young, say that Mr. Ramaphosa is a symptom of a larger problem: a small, A.N.C.-connected black elite that has grown rich while the vast majority of black voters remain impoverished in an economy still largely controlled by white South Africans.
Across the nation, the A.N.C.’s strongest support lies in poor rural and urban communities where many residents remain dependent on the party for jobs, business, housing and other benefits. Mr. Zuma and his allies appealed to them, promising a “radical economic transformation.”
Though a moderate, Mr. Ramaphosa has been forced to adopt some of his rivals’ positions, including a potentially explosive one that would allow the expropriation of land for black South Africans without compensation for the current owners.
That issue has been championed most aggressively by the Economic Freedom Fighters, whose leaders, usually clad in red overalls, have tapped a growing frustration among poor and young voters. Polling data show that support for the party, which was founded in 2013, is expected to climb in this vote.
In Alexandra, Thembi Tshabalala, 54, said she was voting for the Economic Freedom Fighters.
“I’ve always voted for the A.N.C, but I’m still unemployed and I’m still living in a shack,” Ms. Tshabalala said, adding that she shared her home with a brother and two grandchildren. “When it rains, it gets wet inside.”
Mr. Ramaphosa, who served as Mr. Zuma’s deputy for nearly four years, narrowly became the A.N.C. leader in a party vote in December 2017. Two months later, he forced Mr. Zuma to step down as the country’s president, about a year before the end of his term.
The excitement over Mr. Ramaphosa’s presidency — called “Ramaphoria” — fizzled out in the following months. Little came of his promise to jump-start the economy as South African businesses and foreign investors took a wait-and-see attitude.
Mr. Ramaphosa moved quickly to gain control over state enterprises that had become a main source of graft during the Zuma years, and appointed respected individuals to the nation’s law-enforcement and tax agencies. But the slowness in introducing reforms became evident when trouble at Eskom, the state utility, led to the worst rolling blackouts in years.
Mr. Ramaphosa has faced fierce resistance to cleaning up the A.N.C. Many senior party leaders — identified in a government inquiry into corruption as having been involved in illicit activities — remain in power at the highest levels of the party and government.
The party’s own integrity commission recommended the removal of top figures from the A.N.C.’s list of candidates in the national vote. But party leaders decided to look into the matter only after the election.
Ace Magashule, the party’s secretary general and the former leader of a province where corruption flourished under his watch, accused the government of tapping his phone. Mr. Ramaphosa dismissed the accusation.