Supporters of Jacob Zuma sang and danced in the streets Thursday, celebrating an imminent election victory for his African National Congress that will land him in the presidency.
The ANC had a commanding lead over its nearest rivals in a partial count of the votes, and seemed all but certain to control the next parliament that would name the popular but controversial Zuma president.
"We know that counting is still going on, but we can smell a 70%" majority, said Zuma, wearing a black and yellow leather jacket on a stage where he danced with singers as firecrackers popped and champagne flowed over 2,000 supporters.
"Opposition parties campaigned by belittling this organization of the people, but we came out strong," Zuma said.
The ANC had 66.8% of the vote, with ballots counted from about 44% of the electorate, as millions of supporters put their faith in Zuma despite corruption charges dropped just two weeks ago.
The final tally could still be a day away, but the threat posed by a breakaway group, the Congress of the People (COPE), appeared to have fizzled.
The splinter party formed by supporters of former president and Zuma rival Thabo Mbeki looked to have taken nearly eight percent.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance was at 16%, but seemed within reach of grabbing control of the Western Cape province, which includes Cape Town. The ANC was leading in the provincial contests.
The main question now was whether the ANC would hold on to its two-thirds majority, which the party has held for five years, allowing it to make changes to the constitution.
"The debate was always whether the ANC was going to get two-thirds or fall below the two-thirds threshold. They were always going to win," Ebrahim Fakir of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa said.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said the party was not obsessed with passing the two-thirds mark, saying it was "just another number."
"If we get the two-thirds, that is a bonus. It's not an obsession for the ANC," he said.
A record 23 million people registered to vote at nearly 20,000 polling stations with turnout so heavy that authorities reported ballot shortages and overflowing boxes.
The long lines of voters recalled images of South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president following the end of apartheid. Initial estimates put turnout at 77%.
Despite an otherwise peaceful poll, a COPE party official in the Eastern Cape was shot dead by three armed men in an attack on his home.
Zuma has campaigned on a pro-poor ticket with promises of improved public services, but will enter office as South Africa slides towards recession.
Despite the gains since apartheid, public frustrations are growing with unemployment estimated at 40%, a staggering crime rate, and the world's largest caseload of people with HIV.
The son of a housekeeper, Zuma was a stalwart of the struggle against white minority rule, and spent a decade jailed alongside Mandela on Robben Island.
He became deputy to former president Mbeki, but the two developed a fierce rivalry, and Mbeki sacked him in 2005.
Zuma seized the leadership of the ANC away from Mbeki in 2007, and the party took less than a year to dismiss Mbeki as president.© Wire reports