JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - South Africans voted Wednesday (Aug 3) 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.
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 Soweto, the Johannesburg township where Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu once lived, residents queued to vote at a school.
"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 President Jacob 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.
"I'm voting for the current government, I am happy with its work," said 50-year-old Benedict Tuge in Soweto. "A lot of things have changed in this country since 1994."
The vote is seen by some as a referendum on Zuma, who has been weakened by corruption scandals, court cases and dire economic data, including an unemployment rate of 27 per cent and zero per cent GDP growth.
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 voted in Johannesburg.
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.
"I am confident that we are going to do very well," the president said at the end of a bitter and racial-tinged campaign in which he accused DA supporters of believing that black people could not lead the country.
Adding to the uncertainty is the revolutionary socialist EFF party, which has not stood in municipal elections before and has drawn large crowds to its rallies.
"The ANC is an organisation in crisis," said its firebrand leader Julius Malema on Tuesday. "They have run out of ideas, we are killing them." The ANC expelled Malema in 2012 for poor discipline.
The EFF, which won six per cent 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."
February said a close result could open a period of "tricky and messy" coalition building.
With polling due to end at 1700 GMT, voters are choosing mayors and other local representatives responsible for hot-button issues including water, sanitation and power supplies.
A record 26.3 million people are registered to vote, but low turnout may be a factor more than two decades after the euphoric 1994 elections that brought Mandela to power.