JOHANNESBURG South Africans voted on Wednesday in municipal elections in which squalid, open toilets built for the poor have become a potent symbol of local government neglect, nearly 20 years after apartheid ended.
The African National Congress, in power since South Africa's first all-race elections 17 years ago, will almost certainly cruise to victory given the massive public support it still enjoys for bringing down white-minority rule.
But the ANC and its leader, President Jacob Zuma, could be embarrassed by gains for the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which runs Cape Town and has campaigned as the party that can deliver municipal services.
The DA, once associated with white privilege and now trying to reinvent itself as a party that provides good governance for all, said it was confident of securing more votes than in the 2006 local elections, when it took about 14 percent of votes.
Polls closed at 1700 GMT, the first results were expected late on Wednesday, and final results on Friday.
What once looked like a dull campaign for control of 278 municipalities, including Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria, heated up as a row over the toilets, whose users are exposed to public view, dominated headlines.
The ANC scored political points a few months ago when it found the DA had not built walls around public toilets in shantytowns in an area it controlled.
But the ANC itself came under fire when it was revealed just before the vote that it too had failed to build such walls in a town it controlled, and that a local ANC official had been paid state funds for a shoddy construction job.
The ANC has spent billions of dollars to improve the lives of the poor but the results have been mixed. Much of the money has been lost through corruption and incompetence, angering welfare recipients and taxpayers alike.
An Ipsos/Markinor opinion poll released on Wednesday found that the ANC would win outright in four of the eight biggest metropolitan areas, but that undecided voters could force the party to enter coalitions in three other areas.
The poll said the DA would retain Cape Town but might be forced into a coalition with smaller parties to keep control.
VOTING FOR CHANGE
Voters queued patiently for hours before the polls opened in a squatter settlement in the Meadowlands area of South Africa's biggest black township, Soweto.
Adeline Ndlanzi, 58, standing outside a voting station in a tent among shacks and piles of rubbish, said she wanted change.
"We are living in a dirty place. There have been changes since 1994 but not enough," she said.
Since Zuma took power in 2009, the ANC has faced a rising tide of violent protests from its traditional base of poor blacks. The number of protests has shot up from two in 2006 to a record 111 in 2010, according to research group Municipal IQ.
Many poor blacks are frustrated by the slow delivery of electricity, running water, sanitation, functioning schools and basic healthcare since the ANC came to power in 1994.
Some were likely to have shows their anger by either not voting or doing what was once unthinkable: voting for the DA.
"This is the first time in post-apartheid South Africa that our politics appears to be moving toward being about the issues rather than about the identity of the voters," said independent political analyst Nic Borain.
But even if the election shows the ANC is vulnerable, it could be decades before a viable alternative mounts a serious challenge.
"We are too close to the end of apartheid ... to expect a massive transformation of the vote," Borain said.