Johannesburg: South Africans on Wednesday began voting in municipal elections in which squalid unenclosed toilets built for the country`s poor have become a potent symbol of local government neglect.
The African National Congress, in power since the end of apartheid 17 years ago, is expected to storm to victory given the public esteem 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.
Voting stations opened at 0500 GMT (1 a.m. EDT) and will remain open until 1700 GMT (1 p.m. EDT).
What once appeared as a dull race for control of 278 municipalities, including Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria, has heated up as a row over toilets whose users are exposed to public view has 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 to have done the same, with a local ANC official being paid state funds despite the shoddy construction.
Voting For Change
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.
Many are frustrated with the slow delivery of electricity, sanitation, functioning schools and basic health care since the country`s first all-race election in 1994.
Some were expected to show their anger by either not voting or doing what was unthinkable a few years ago: casting a vote for the DA, a party once associated with white privilege and now trying to reinvent itself as providing good governance for all.
"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.
Key numbers to watch for will be any fall in the support for the ANC, which had about 67 percent of the total vote in the last municipal race in 2006, and any gains in support for the DA, which scored about 14 percent in 2006.
Any decline in voter turnout, which was 48.4 percent in 2006, or gains by the DA in major urban areas, would deal a heavy blow to Zuma and could undermine him and embolden his rivals in the highly splintered ruling party.