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Test for ANC as S.Africa votes in local elections

South Africans voted Wednesday in closely contested municipal elections that could deal a heavy blow to the African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled since leading the struggle to end apartheid.

Polling stations closed at 1700 GMT, where voters chose mayors and other local representatives responsible for hot-button issues including water, sanitation and power supplies.

The election is seen by some as a referendum on President Jacob Zuma, who has been weakened by corruption scandals, court cases and dire economic data, including an unemployment rate of 27 percent and zero percent GDP growth.

“Voting proceeded smoothly at voting stations throughout the country,” chief electoral officer Mosotho Moepya said.

“No significant incidents of unrest or deliberate disruption to voting were reported.”

Counting begins immediately.

Nelson Mandela’s former party risks losing control of key cities including the capital Pretoria, the economic hub Johannesburg and coastal Port Elizabeth, according to some polls.

Development in South Africa has been patchy since Mandela won the first multi-racial elections in 1994, with many black communities still enduring poor housing, inadequate education and a lack of opportunities.

With the economy stalling and unemployment hitting record levels, the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) both hope to secure major gains.

In Johannesburg’s Soweto township, residents queued to vote at a school near the former homes of Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“We are tired of this self-serving leadership. People are tired, even grannies are sick and tired of this government,” Nathi Mulaudzi, a 40-year-old unemployed truck driver, told AFP.

But Zuma retains widespread support, especially in rural areas, and the ANC’s patronage network and deep coffers could help it maintain a hold in the majority of the 278 municipalities.

“There are so many negative things that are said about ANC but I’m thinking about what (Mandela) went through under apartheid so I’m just doing it for him,” said Lebogang Maponyane, a 43-year-old unemployed woman from Soweto, after voting for the ANC.

The DA, which controls in Cape Town, is looking to take new cities and build momentum ahead on the 2019 general election.

“It is a historic day today, we have got to do everything in our power to vote for change. This is our moment,” said Mmusi Maimane, the party’s first black leader, as he cast his ballot in Johannesburg.

– Fight for the cities –

The final polls by Ipsos showed the DA ahead in Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) and in a close fight in Tshwane (Pretoria) and Johannesburg.

The results, most of which are expected on Thursday, may pile pressure on Zuma, 74, to step down before his second term ends in 2019.

He exuded confidence as he voted in his rural village Nkandla, where publicly-funded upgrades to his sprawling homestead have been one of the biggest controversies of his administration.

Adding to the vote uncertainty is the revolutionary socialist EFF party, which has not stood in municipal elections before, but has drawn large crowds to its rallies.

“EFF will perform very well,” party leader Julius Malema said after he voted in the northern province of Limpopo.

“Young people will come out — they are not apathetic and politically active and the EFF will mobilise them.”

The party, which won six percent of the vote in the 2014 general election, advocates land redistribution without compensation and the nationalisation of mines.

“If ANC lose some big metros, it will be a dire situation for President Zuma,” Judith February, a researcher with the Institute of Security Studies, told AFP.

“It would be hugely symbolic to lose Nelson Mandela Bay or Johannesburg — cities of black workers. But we should never underestimate the ANC.”

A record 26.3 million people registered to vote, but low turnout may be a factor more than two decades after the euphoric 1994 elections that brought Mandela to power.