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South Africa tallies votes in local polls amid frustration

Counting began in South Africa’s local elections Wednesday night, but it was too early to tell if voters had punished the powerful ruling African National Congress over poor basic services.

Early results trickled in after polling stations closed at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT), but by midnight just 4.6 percent of the vote had been counted.

The ANC, which won 66 percent support at the last local polls in 2006, had 56.1 percent of the vote to 33.6 percent for the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), but analysts said it was too early to draw conclusions.

The campaign was marked by heated rhetoric as the party of Nelson Mandela scrambled to shore up support following an explosion of anti-government protests.

“There has been a lot of anger in the community over issues of service delivery,” said Martha Ngwenya, a 47-year-old clerk who was among around 200 people waiting for polling stations to open at 7:00 am.

“Our main concern is lack of housing and refuse that is left uncollected,” she said at Zandspruit, a shantytown outside Johannesburg that has seen several violent protests over shoddy services.

Illustrating the complaints, a power blackout delayed the start of voting at her polling station by 15 minutes.

The ANC has ruled since Mandela won the first all-race elections in 1994, but has been criticised over rampant unemployment, corruption and a failure to keep essential services running.

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.

The anger is expected to loosen the ANC’s majority, with one opinion poll tipping the party to win 58.9 percent of the vote, down seven points from 2006.

The DA, successor to a liberal white party that opposed apartheid, is set to make gains and take just under a fifth of the ballots, the poll said.

“It’s going to be a turning point for South Africa,” DA leader Helen Zille said before casting her vote in Cape Town. “No party owns any voter permanently.”

President Jacob Zuma — who has told voters a vote for the opposition would be one for the devil and that they risked their ancestors’ ire unless they chose his party — said he was confident the ANC would make gains.

“I am very optimistic because we have made serious advances. We will surprise many,” Zuma said after voting in his home village of Nkandla, according to the Sapa news agency.

Many South Africans still cannot imagine leaving the ANC, the party that led them to overcome decades of white-minority rule.

“It’s a party which I like and where my home is. Today I feel liberated because of that party,” said Malixole Gobelo, a 60-year-old pensioner who cast his ballot in a Cape Town township.

“I will support that party until I die. Because of what they are doing, what they are planning to do and their ideology,” he said. “And because I like the icon.”

The icon is Mandela, who at 92 is growing frail and is rarely seen in public but remains a powerful symbol of South Africa’s democratic transition.

Zuma used the last day of campaigning Tuesday to visit the Nobel Peace Prize winner at his Johannesburg home.

The ANC controls all major cities except Cape Town, but the ANC lost ground in eight out of nine provinces in the 2009 general polls.

University of Johannesburg analyst Adam 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 where she trumpeted her party as a model of effective government.

As polls closed at 7:00 pm, election officials said voting had gone smoothly despite hiccups caused by late ballot papers in Johannesburg, overnight fires at two polling stations and a crocodile-infested river that delayed a poll opening in the northern province of Limpopo.