PRETORIA (Reuters) - The ruling African National Congress (ANC) took a clear lead on Thursday in South Africa's first "Born Free" election, featuring voters with no memory of the white-minority rule that ended in 1994.
Election officials said they were investigating a shooting death in rural KwaZulu-Natal, the home of President Jacob Zuma. The incident was a rare blot on an otherwise peaceful vote.
The ANC, the liberation movement that swept to power two decades ago under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, had 59.7 percent of the vote with a third of ballots counted, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) said.
Its nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance, held 26.7 percent, backing predictions the party would improve on the 16.7 percent it won five years ago as it gradually sheds its image as the political home of privileged whites.
The ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema, a populist politician who was expelled from the ANC, was in third place with 4.3 percent.
While voting in the fifth election since the end of apartheid ran smoothly, an IEC spokesman said it was investigating the killing of what the ANC said was one of its members.
The unidentified person was sitting at an ANC desk outside a polling station when they were shot dead, the party said, adding the act was "clearly calculated to undermine free and fair elections".
Pre-election polls had put ANC support near 65 percent, a touch below the 65.9 percent it won in the 2009 election that brought Zuma to power.
The ANC's enduring popularity has surprised analysts who had said its support could ebb as the glory of its past recedes into history and voters focus 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 1994 - and the ANC's efforts to stimulate growth and tackle 25 percent 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 state-funded security upgrade to his private home at Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal that included a swimming pool and chicken run.
Zuma has denied any wrongdoing and defended the upgrades as necessary for the protection of a head of state. He confidently told reporters on Monday the Nkandla controversy was "not an issue with the voters".
His personal approval ratings have dipped this year, but Zuma appeared relaxed and assured as he voted at a school near Nkandla, ending what he called a "very challenging" campaign.
"I hope that all voters will cast their votes free," he told reporters. "This is our right that we fought for."
(Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Ed Cropley)