JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africans on Wednesday voted 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 storm to victory given the public support it still enjoys for bringing down white-minority rule.
But the ANC and its leader, President Jacob Zuma, could be embarrassed by any gains for the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which runs Cape Town and has campaigned as the party that can deliver municipal services.
The DA, a party once associated with white privilege and now trying to reinvent itself as providing 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.
What once appeared as a dull race for control of 278 municipalities, including Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria, heated up as a row over 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 it came under fire when it was revealed just before the vote not to have built such walls either in a town it controlled, with a local ANC official being paid state funds despite the shoddy construction.
Zuma wrote in his Twitter microblog that the peaceful election campaigns across the country showed that South Africa’s democracy was “maturing in only 17 years.”
Balloting stations opened at 0500 GMT (1 a.m. EDT) and will remain open until 1700 GMT (1 p.m. EDT). Results are expected to trickle in from late Wednesday night with the final outcome only due on Friday.
An Ipsos/Markinor opinion poll released on Wednesday found that the ANC would win outright in four of the country’s eight biggest metropolitan areas but undecided voters could force the party to enter into coalitions in three other metros.
The poll said the DA would retain Cape Town but it may be forced into a coalition with smaller parties to keep control.
In a squatter settlement in the Meadowlands area of South Africa’s biggest black township Soweto, voters were patiently queuing for hours ahead of the polls opening.
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. I want our place to be nice, I am voting for change. There have been changes since 1994 but not enough,” Ndlanzi said.
Since Zuma took power in 2009, the ANC has faced violent protests from its traditional base of poor blacks. In 2010, 111 protests over basic service delivery were recorded by research firm Municipal IQ, compared to 105 in 2009 and 23 so far this year.
Many are frustrated with the slow delivery of electricity, sanitation, functioning schools and basic health care since the ANC came to power in 1994.
“We have to vote for a change in life. Look around, this place is a dump but we live here and our lives have to also get better,” said Steven Maluleke, a jobless Meadowlands resident.
Some were likely to show their anger by either not voting or doing what was once unthinkable: casting a vote for the DA.
“This is the first time in the 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.
The election may show the ANC is vulnerable, but it could take decades before a viable alternative will challenge it.
“We are too close to the end of apartheid ... to expect a massive transformation of the vote,” Borain said.
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Writing by Marius Bosch; editing by Mark Heinrich