By Manoah Esipisu and Paul Simao
JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s ruling ANC headed to national victory in local government elections on Thursday but battled to retain control of one of the top prizes, the tourist centre Cape Town.
The African National Congress wen
t into Wednesday’s election virtually guaranteed its third major victory since the demise of apartheid in 1994, with voter loyalty still strong for the party which under Nelson Mandela ended decades of white rule.
The ANC — which by 5:30 p.m. (1530 GMT) had amassed more than 67 percent of the overall vote — said it was encouraged by the response at the polls.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the overwhelming majority of South African voters have placed their confidence in the ANC,” the party said in a statement on the partial results.
But celebrations were on hold as the ANC faced tough fights for two of South Africa’s biggest and best-known cities.
By late afternoon, President Thabo Mbeki’s party appeared to have headed off a challenge in Pretoria, where analysts said residents against plans to change the capital’s name to Tshwane had boosted opposition support.
While the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) posted an early lead, ensuing vote counts showed the ruling party making up lost ground. With more than three-quarters of the vote counted, the ANC was ahead by 48 percent to the DA’s 39 percent.
The battle for Cape Town, South Africa’s tourist magnet and seat of the country’s parliament, was tougher yet.
The port city, famous worldwide for the imposing mass of Table Mountain, is the only South African metropolis without a black majority population. It saw voters split among the DA, the ANC and smaller opposition parties — raising the likelihood that no party would win an outright majority.
The loss of Cape Town, which the ANC grabbed from the DA in 2002 due to a controversial law which let legislators defect to other parties, would dent the ANC’s image and highlight continued racial divide in the city.
Overall turnout in Wednesday’s election, seen as a gauge of voter sentiment, was put at about 49 percent, roughly the same as the last municipal polls in 2000 and well below pollsters’ forecasts of as high as 60 percent.
While ANC officials declared themselves satisfied with the response of voters, some analysts said the party’s failure to rally more supporters to the polls indicated growing frustration over dismal government services in many poor areas.
This year’s campaign took place amid a series of violent protests in a number of poor townships across the country, where angry residents criticised the ANC for failing to deliver on promises of electricity, water and sewerage after more than a decade in power.
In the township of Khutsong outside Johannesburg, the scene of some of the angriest anti-ANC protests, only several hundred of about 30,000 registered voters cast their ballots amid a poll boycott called to express outrage at government moves to rezone the community into a poorer province.
But poll results on Thursday showed that little of this popular anger had translated into votes for the opposition, which most analysts said appeared more splintered than ever in the face of the ruling party’s dominance.
DA leader Tony Leon, who had urged opposition supporters to unite behind his party, put a brave face on preliminary results which showed it scoring just 14 percent of the overall vote and indicated he’d be willing to work with other opposition parties.
“Although final election results are still awaited, it is clear that in a number of towns and cities around South Africa, no party has a clear majority,” Leon said in a statement.
Results from the ballot for some 45,000 local councillors in 277 municipalities and the country’s six major cities were trickling in, but officials said it could take until Sunday for the final vote tally to be made.