However, polls suggest the allure of the ruling African National Congress as the conqueror of apartheid will prevail even among those with no memory of white-minority rule.
Polling stations opened at 0500 GMT, with voters waiting in line, many wrapped up against the early morning chill of the southern hemisphere winter. They close at 1900 GMT and a firm idea of the outcome should be available by midday on May 8.
Opinion polls suggest there is no doubt about the overall result, with ANC support estimated at around 65 per cent, only a shade lower than the 65.9 per cent it won in the 2009 election that brought President Jacob Zuma to power.
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The resilience of ANC support has surprised analysts who a year ago were saying it could struggle at the polls as its glorious past recedes into history and voters focus instead on the sluggish economic growth and slew of scandals that have typified Zuma's first term.
Africa's most sophisticated economy has struggled to recover from a 2009 recession - its first since the 1994 demise of apartheid - and the ANC's efforts to stimulate growth and tackle 25 per cent unemployment have been hampered by powerful unions.
South Africa's top anti-graft agency accused Zuma this year of "benefiting unduly" from a 23 million dollars state-funded security upgrade to his private home at Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal province that included a swimming pool and chicken run.
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His personal approval ratings have dipped since the findings by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. But at a news conference this week to conclude the ANC election campaign, the 72-year-old brushed aside suggestions the imbroglio was damaging the party.
"I'm not worried about Nkandla," Zuma said. "The people are not worried about it. I think the people who are worried about it is you guys, the media, and the opposition."
(WATCH VIDEO: S.Africa's Public Protector, life after the Nkandla Report)
Besides being easy fodder for the cartoonists who have revelled in the freedom of speech enshrined in the post-apartheid constitution, Nkandla has exposed the gulf between current and former ANC leaders, in particular Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, who died in December.
It has also become the rallying cry for those who feel the dominance of the ANC as it enters its third decade in power has corrupted the soul of the 102-year-old former liberation movement.
"It is not necessarily the huge sum paid by the public that is the most corrupt aspect of Zuma's palatial rural estate," the Business Day newspaper said in an editorial this week.
"It is how voraciously this wretched business has sucked in so many others: ministers, bureaucrats, party officials and, as the election hots up, ordinary loyalists."
Barring a major upset, the stock market and rand should take the vote in their stride and could even gain if South Africa's reputation for stability relative to other emerging marketssuch as Brazil, Ukraine or Turkey is affirmed.
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"Overall, the election is reassuringly boring," said Simon Freemantle, an economist at Standard Bank in Johannesburg. "We know who's going to win and we know there are not going to be any radical policy changes. That is reassuring."
SOUTH AFRICA'S CHAVEZ
The ANC's nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance, polled 16.7 per cent nationwide in 2009 and, even though it has been gaining ground, is still seen too much as the political home of privileged whites to have mass appeal.
Instead, the most spirited challenge has come from the ultra-leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who models himself on Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, right down to the jaunty red beret.
In his final rally at a Pretoria soccer stadium, Malema, who wants to nationalise banks and mines and seize white-owned farms without compensation, lambasted everything from the Nkandla issue to foreign investors and former colonial powers.
"London must know that we're not scared of the queen," he said to thunderous applause from the 30,000-strong crowd.
"Therefore, we shall not report to London. We will report to the people. The people of South Africa will decide how business is conducted in South Africa. We are taking everything."
However, even the EFF's noisy emergence is likely to have minimal overall impact, with polls putting its support at 4-5 per cent. But of 1.9 million "Born Free" voters aged 18-19 - its key constituency - only one in three is registered.
The silver-tongued Malema himself is also likely to barred from public office this month if a court confirms a provisional sequestration order imposed in February because of 16 million rand owed in unpaid taxes.