CAPE TOWN, May 18 – South Africa began voting Wednesday in a local polls test for the ruling party after a frenzied campaign to woo disillusioned voters that has evoked God and even frail icon Nelson Mandela\’s health.
Lines formed outside several polling stations visited by AFP as voters waited for the doors to open at 7:00 am (0500 GMT), despite the early winter chill.
The monolithic African National Congress (ANC) is set to decisively repeat its run of sweeping post-apartheid election victories, but the latest opinion poll predicts the party\’s support will weaken in the face of growing anger over its performance.
An Ipsos Markinor survey of 2,050 voters tips the ANC to win 58.9 percent, down seven points from the 2006 local polls, with the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) set to make gains to take just under one fifth of the ballots.
"It is a test in the sense that people are very irritated with the ANC, particularly poor communities in their own base," said University of Johannesburg analyst Adam Habib. "The question is what does their base do?"
Twelve hours of voting begins at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) at 20,868 polling stations countrywide after months of politicians scrambling to woo new voters and retain traditional support bases 17 years after the first all-race vote.
President Jacob Zuma\’s ANC has easily won each election since 1994 backed by the loyal black majority which comprises 79 percent of the population.
The party controls all major cities except Cape Town, which it lost five years ago to the DA led by Helen Zille who has called on voters elsewhere to put her party\’s track-record to the test.
The ANC lost ground in eight out of nine provinces in 2009 general polls and Habib warned that if the trend continued "they could easily lose a number of significant metropoles which would be a symbolic slap in the face".
Derided as white and elitist, Zille has danced and sang at rallies to urge people to choose service delivery over race, while the ANC has used its rich anti-apartheid history and promised to beef up weak areas.
But the party\’s liberation credentials have been tarnished by graft and growing anger at local government, from flawed billing systems in wealthier neighbourhoods to widening inequality and joblessness faced by the poor.
Violent demonstrations have exploded in poor areas with major protests rocketing from just 10 in 2004 to 111 last year, according to research group Municipal IQ.
"There\’s a disconnect between politicians and citizens," said University of the Western Cape analyst Cherrel Africa. "It\’s actually quite understandable the frustration that many people feel."
But a polls dip for the ANC would be due to high levels of disillusionment that will see people stay away, rather than a shift in South African politics, she said.
"That slippage, it\’s more abstention than actually change of allegiance."
The previous local polls in 2006 only drew a 48 percent turn-out but IDASA executive director Paul Graham said greater competition could prompt more interest.
"It looks like people are more keen this time," said Graham. "Where there\’s a contest, people turn out, that\’s the general theory."
ANC leaders have threatened ancestral wrath, warned that an opposition vote was one for for the devil, dubbed Zille a "madam" and said a non-ANC ballot will worsen Mandela\’s health.
But the lead up to Wednesday\’s vote has been the most peaceful yet in post-apartheid South Africa, according to the country\’s Election Monitoring Network.