South Africans queued in the winter cold on Wednesday to vote in local elections seen as a referendum on President Jacob Zuma’s scandal-plagued leadership and an economy forecast to stagnate this year.
The African National Congress (ANC) has held sway in most local authorities since white-minority rule in Africa’s most industrialised country ended 22 years ago. Any defeats could erode the party’s support before a national election in 2019.
Opinion polls see a close race in the capital Pretoria, economic-hub Johannesburg and other key cities, alongside the symbolic Nelson Mandela Bay municipality named after the anti-apartheid icon.
“I’m voting because I want access to electricity and water and other services. Unemployment is rife and I think voting will help change that,” said William Mahlangu, 58, a pensioner, at a polling station in Pretoria.
Outside a queue of people wearing jackets and hats to keep warm snaked to the polling station.
At Diepsloot, a shantytown north of Johannesburg, voting had not yet started as ballot boxes were still being sealed. Some voters were seen standing around a fire.
Voting was also taking place in Port Elizabeth, the capital of the closely-contested Nelson Mandela Bay municipality. Hundreds of people were standing in a winding queue in sheltering from strong winds and drizzle.
“The way the opposition parties have carried out their campaigns and the way the ANC has responded, show the vote will be a referendum on Zuma and the performance of his government on the national economy as well as the local level,” BNP Paribas Securities South Africa political analyst Nic Borain said.
Zuma, who has been beset by a series of scandals, survived an impeachment vote in April after the Constitutional Court said he breached the law by ignoring an order to repay some of the $16 million in state funds spent on renovating his home.
In December, he was widely criticised for changing his finance minister twice in a week, sending the rand plummeting and alarming investors.
Zuma has rejected the accusations, saying he is fit to lead, and the ANC party has backed its president.
But anger is rising in a country where one in four people are unemployed and the central bank expects zero growth this year. The economy is on the brink of a recession after shrinking by 1.2 percent in the January-March period.
That is stoking fears of a downgrade by ratings agencies to “junk” status in reviews expected by December.
The biggest threat to the ANC comes from the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), a mainly white party, which last year named Mmusi Maimane, a black man, as its leader.
Seeking to widen its appeal in the “rainbow nation”, it has been courting ANC supporters before the vote, promising to help create jobs and improve social services if elected.
The leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by firebrand Julius Malema, Zuma’s one-time protege and former ANC youth leader, is another challenger. It is seen attracting the young and unemployed with a promise to redistribute among poor blacks wealth still largely held by whites.