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South Africa municipal: Ramaphosa, opposition leader John Steenhuisen cast vote

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Denis Farrell/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Municipal elections

South Africans cast ballots Monday in local elections expected to reflect growing discontent with the African National Congress, whose popularity has been waning even before deadly riots in July.

Polls suggest a majority of voters could for the first time turn against the ANC, which has governed nationally since Nelson Mandela's election ended white rule in 1994.

Senior party members, including ex-president Jacob Zuma, face a slew of corruption investigations -- the latest linked to coronavirus spending.

Unemployment has hit 34.4 percent. In July, Zuma's imprisonment sparked riots and looting that left at least 354 dead.

But for many voters, daily frustrations are at the forefront. Decades of mismanagement have corroded state utilities, causing water cuts and rolling blackouts that interrupted the ANC's own campaigning.

"The apartheid government used to be bad, but at least it delivered services to the people," said Samuel Mahlaule, 55-year-old Uber driver and father of four in Soweto.

Early Monday, he was in a queue of less than 20 people at a polling station near President Cyril Ramaphosa's childhood home, and he wants change.

"Our ANC leaders haven't really delivered" he said. "They make too many empty promises. But, we are still hopeful."

Farther away in Danville, a predominantly white middle-class suburb of Pretoria, Charmaine Barnard, 57, also yearns for change.

"The reason why I'm voting is to make change in the country, better life for everyone," she said.

About 26 million people registered to vote, out of an eligible population of around 40 million.

They are choosing local councillors in 257 municipalities, but turnout is expected to be low.

"I won't vote because the government has forgotten about the plight of people like me," said Xihluke Mitileni, 27, an unemployed mother of two.

"I am a squatter in my own country," she said. "My parents were promised houses by the ANC when I was young, but that promise has never been delivered. "

- ANC 'clean-up' -

Ramaphosa and other top ANC leaders have relentlessly campaigned across the country, with the president himself even stumping in small towns.

Their focus this past week has been on key battlegrounds in Gauteng, home to the capital Pretoria and financial hub Johannesburg, which the ANC lost for the first time in the last local elections in 2016.

That year the party won just under 54 percent of the vote nationally, its worst electoral showing ever.

"We realise that we have not realised the aspirations of our people, we are going to do better," Ramaphosa said after casting his ballot in Soweto.

He said he expected an "overwhelming victory" for the ANC, but polls predict that the party's popularity will keep sliding.

Throughout the campaign Ramaphosa has been trying to convince voters that they are "cleaning up the party".

But in rural Umzinto in KwaZulu-Natal province, voters unhappy with an ANC candidate dug a trench and used boulders to barricade access to a polling station at Mistake Farm.

Police later cleared the road, filled up the trench and arrested around a dozen people. But after four hours, the station remained closed.

A handful of voters who showed up were turned away by electoral officials waiting to take delivery of ballot papers.

Meantime, the opposition is fractured.

The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is widely seen as a party for whites. It has formed unlikely coalitions with the radical left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters.

But the local governments they have set up together often spend more time bickering than working to provide services.

A record 1,700 of the 60,000 candidates in Monday's races are independents, reflecting disenchantment with the mainstream parties.

Their performance will set the scene for general elections in 2024.