By Ed Stoddard
MARIKANA, South Africa (Reuters) - In the shantytowns around Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine, where 34 striking miners were shot dead by police in 2012, residents say the ruling party has failed to keep a promise for basic services and could lose in next week's local polls.
The vote will be a stern test for President Jacob Zuma's African National Congress who is facing a strong challenge from the opposition and an economy forecast to stagnate this year.
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Any defeats in the big population centers for the ANC in the Aug. 3 vote, could damage the party, in power since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, as it prepares for a presidential election in 2019.
Marikana, a hardscrabble mining community 110 kms (70 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, is testament to the ruling party's declining political standing. Once an ANC stronghold, it is expected to lose further ground to the opposition.
"We want water, housing and electricity. There have been no changes here," said Welekazi Mkololo, 30, an unemployed resident of Marikana, sitting amid corrugated iron shacks.
"I have to fetch water from a stream, it's far from here."
Polls suggest the ANC could also lose its hold on major municipalities such as the commercial hub of Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay on the east coast.
The ANC has repeatedly promised a "better life for all" and can point to a number of successes.
"Once upon a time local government only delivered services to certain sectors of the population. Now, we have a government that delivers services to all its citizens," Zuma said on the campaign trail in June.
For example, according to United Nations and ANC data, the percentage of the population with access to at least basic sanitation increased to 79.5 percent in 2014 from 62.3 percent in 2002.
But after the 2012 deaths of the strikers in Marikana who were seeking "a living wage," the ANC promised fast-paced economic development to try and avoid a repeat of the incident and residents say there has been little sign of change.
"Marikana stands as a monument to ANC failures on so many levels, broken promises, unfulfilled expectations and the slow lingering decay of hope," said Gary van Staden, a political analyst with NKC African Economics.
DECLINE IN POLITICAL FORTUNES
The lack of basic services combined with the memory of what has become known as the "Marikana Massacre" have provided fertile ground for the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), whose leader Julius Malema seized on the killings, blaming them on Zuma's government to advance his new party.
An investigation into the deaths released by Zuma, blamed Lonmin, the police and unions for the killings.
“The EFF will win here. They are pressing the Marikana agenda. People here blame the ANC for those 34 deaths,” said 30-year-old Marikana resident Sifiso Mthethwa, an unemployed computer technician strumming a guitar on a dusty street corner.
The ANC took 92 percent of the vote in Marikana in the 2011 local elections but only 38 percent in the 2014 general elections, when the EFF took 25 percent in the ward.
"You can see that board in front of you, that is how we will vote," said Mphuthumi Mphosie, 23, an unemployed Marikana resident, pointing to an EFF billboard.
The region has also been the epicenter of a violent union turf war that saw the National Union of Mineworkers, a key ANC ally, lose its majority representation of workers in the platinum belt to the militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.
Other former ANC strongholds suffer from a similar lack of services to Marikana's mushrooming shantytown.
According to a study last year by the Ministry of Co-operative Governance, which oversees local authorities, a third of South Africa's municipalities were "dysfunctional."
This has led to riots, dubbed "service delivery protests" in towns where rubbish goes uncollected, water taps run dry, and finances are strained.
"It is a vicious cycle of poor oversight and corruption," said Karen Heese of Municipal IQ, a local government research organization.
Data by Municipal IQ shows the number of such protests surged to 191 in 2014 from 27 in 2008. The riots declined to 164 in 2015 but there were 91 in the first six months of 2016.
On the flip side, a 2014 report by investment bank Goldman Sachs said the percentage of households with access to power rose to 85 percent in 2012 from 77 percent in 2002.
Households with access to piped tap water - either on the property or in the neighborhood - soared to 91 percent in 2012 from just 56 percent in 2002.
But hooking households up to water or power is one thing: maintaining the flow is another. A few miles down the road from Marikana is Maditlokwa, a shantytown convulsed by rioting in February.
"Nothing has changed since the protests," said one elderly woman, who declined to give her name. She said the water in the tap in her small plot sometimes worked, but often did not.
(Editing by James Macharia and Anna Willard)