The 18.3 million South Africans of all races who will vote in national and provincial elections will be overseen by some 100,000 security-force members and a host of foreign observers.
The African National Congress is hoping to win up to two-thirds of the vote and could secure a majority in at least seven of the country's nine provinces.
But questions remain over the reliability of an ambitious satellite computer link, set up in Pretoria to compile results as they are sent by modem from 15,000 polling stations. By yesterday it had crashed on both its dry runs.
Any dispute over results - especially in provinces where the ANC's supremacy is not guaranteed - could spark violent clashes. Even though the pre-election period has been remarkably calm, tensions are running high in parts of the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
There are also fears that large numbers of unregistered voters will turn up at polling stations. In 1994 there was no common electoral roll, and 25 million votes were cast.
The elections - which are by proportional representation using a list system - are starkly different from those of 1994, when President Nelson Mandela was elected.
But he came to power only at the expense of hundreds of lives lost in political clashes in the run-up to the vote, and a haphazard election procedure.
In the intervening five years the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has heard hundreds of testimonies, South Africa has implemented the most progressive constitution in the world and the ANC has apparently brought to heel the rival Inkatha Freedom Party.
The government has built 750,000 homes - short of its 1 million target - as well as connecting water and electricity to some 3 million homes.
For the majority, life is immeasurably better than under the repressive apartheid regime.
However, there is still deep-rooted racial suspicion, now entrenched by economic differences. An emerging economy, South Africa has been in the frontline of the fall-out from the Asian crisis and, now, the fall in the gold price. Unemployment stands at 40 per cent and growth is nil.
During the election campaign the 26 parties in the race - 16 of them running for places in the 400-seat national parliament - have identified joblessness, crime and corruption as the main issues.
The opposition parties, which are still largely racially drawn, have called for the return of the death penalty and more resources for the police. But the biggest opposition party - which will be either the New National Party or the Democratic Party - can hope for no more than 12 per cent of the vote.
The ANC, for which capital punishment is anathema, has controversially identified the police as a source of criminality. It has admitted to a need for a clean-up among corrupt politicians, especially at provincial level.
On the economy, there is broad agreement that the ANC government has done as good a job as could be expected, though opposition parties have suggested small-business vouchers and special incentives for foreign investors.
The elections, in which, after a controversial constitutional court judgment, prisoners will be allowed to vote, were described yesterday by the president- in-waiting, Thabo Mbeki, as a turning point that entrenches democracy.
Mr Mbeki, the current ANC president, who will be inaugurated on 16 June, told CNN: "I think that at the end of it we will say that perhaps this is the point at which you were convinced that the overwhelming majority of South Africans understood that this is the political system they want."Reuse content