Will this week's vote cast new light on SA?
The results of Wednesday's election will show whether South Africans really have started to change the post-apartheid political conversation from one about what they have escaped to one about what they want.
Without the sort of detailed public polls that inform pre-election reporting in richer democracies, observers have to rely on anecdotal evidence and spilt snippets from the expensive private polling done for parties, companies and community organisations to predict the likely outcome.
The only thing that really is clear three days ahead of the election is that the potential stayaway by disgruntled traditional ANC supporters is likely to be as much of a factor as the persuasive effect of party campaigns.
Helen Zille, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, has successfully made the delivery of residential services and a conducive environment for business issues her focus in the political debate, asking voters to give her party a five-year mandate to show what it can do for them in their own back yards.
She has taken her message to ANC strongholds far beyond the DA's comfort zone, with an unspoken subtext to encourage disgruntled ANC loyalists not yet ready to actually vote for someone else to just stay home.
Leaving the hatchet work to ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who has gone as far as to brand all whites "criminals" by virtue of their skin colour, President Jacob Zuma has focused his attention on shoring up the ANC's traditional power base and encouraging his supporters to get out and make their mark.
In communities where your vote might be your secret, but whether you voted or not isn't because you will carry the mark on your thumb for a month, Zuma has played heavily on the ANC's struggle record, telling rural voters they will feel the wrath of their ancestors if they don't vote for the party that won them the vote in 1994.
Apart from contesting the validity of indices - including some compiled by his own government - that cite DA councils as the most effective, he has not tackled the issues that the DA has tried to keep on the table.
Neil Higgs, a pollster for TNS Research Surveys, released data this week showing that about 73% of voters planned to support the same party as in 2006, which suggests that the ANC's huge majorities in most places is secure.
But the missing 27% accords roughly with the proportion of the electorate reported to be telling private pollsters that they are rethinking old allegiances and could be open to persuasion. Many in that segment have told pollsters they intend to go out and vote for someone else, but most analysts doubt there will be a swing of anything like that magnitude.
Comments by two of the country's most respected political analysts illustrate the range of expectations for this poll.
Steven Friedman, who runs the Centre for the Study of Democracy, sees no sea change until some future date, probably still distant, when the ANC alliance splits. He expects this election to show small shifts influenced largely by the administrative mayhem and factional contestation within the ANC.
"I think that if there is a stayaway, it could confirm the 2009 trend of gradual erosion of ANC support, but it's not going to be enough to make the ANC leadership really sit up and take notice," he said.
Allister Sparks, who advises private corporations, took a different view in an analysis in Business Day this week, saying: "... it is evident that the tectonic plates of our political structure are beginning to shift ... How far this will go remains to be seen, but I suspect it will be greater, rather than less than most analysts expect."
The dominant view among analysts is that the DA will consolidate its control in Cape Town and probably hang on to Midvaal, its only foothold in Gauteng. The Pretoria-based Tshwane metro was once considered vulnerable to the opposition, but is seen to be safe for the ANC now that its boundary has been expanded to include the strongly ANC-aligned Metweding district.
Kevin Allan, who runs the independent monitoring agency Municipal IQ, said: "The ANC, regardless of potential voter apathy, as well as dynamic opposition coalitions, is highly unlikely to be unseated from any of the country's metros in which it is currently incumbent. That said, the party would be naive to dismiss the dangers of voter apathy and how this could lead to a few surprises."
The only metro that most consider vulnerable to an opposition coalition is Nelson Mandela Bay, which includes Port Elizabeth and is the last redoubt of the COPE effect, which largely came and went between the last local election and this one, and is now unlikely to significantly change the political geography created in 2006. COPE has fielded Smuts Ngonyama, a high-profile convert from the ANC, as its mayoral candidate.
Patricia de Lille's party, the Independent Democrats, is leaving the municipal stage, but she is not, so at least some of the 530000 votes she gathered across the country in 2006 will go with her to the DA. With a potential electorate of 23.6 million and a possible poll of about 50%, their influence is likely to be very local and too diluted to significantly change the national map.
The DA, which runs a daily tracking poll to privately measure the impact of Zille's campaign, has focused most of its attention on those still undecided whether to vote or who to vote for. Although strategists are realistic about the worldwide tendency for undecided voters to default to their old preferences, they are optimistic that many of those newly without a political home will join their "blue wave".
The DA expects to beat the combined 16.9% share of all the votes cast in 2006 that went to the DA and the ID, but more important to its long-term strategy is the share it gets of the African vote. DA strategists declined to make detailed results of their polling public, but said it indicated a significant inroad into this previously unreachable constituency.
The DA estimates that it took less than 2% of the African vote in 2009. Chief strategist Ryan Coetzee said this week: "We expect that figure to grow by several orders of magnitude."
The ANC ridicules this optimism and predicts wins in Midvaal, Nelson Mandela Bay and even Cape Town.
If the ANC does rack up gains, however, they are most likely to be in KwaZulu-Natal, where by-elections since 2006 have eroded the strength of Mangosuthu Buthelezi's IFP, and the defection of the IFP's popular former chairman, Zanele Magwaza-Msibi, to form her own National Freedom Party has created new opportunities.
The results of the last local government election in 2006 don't give much of a guide now because so much has changed since then, including the abolition of the floor-crossing provision that distorted those results in 2007, and the Polokwane rout later that year of Thabo Mbeki's ANC cohort, which led scores of ANC members to quit the party for COPE.
Although Zuma likes to say the party is more united than ever under his leadership, the evidence undermines his optimism. He has had to promise to undo some of the results of this week's poll by forcing winners to resign and make their seats available in early by-elections to appease those angry about the manipulation of nomination lists in favour of Zuma loyalists.
Zuma's ANC enters this week's election at a low point in its history; Zille's DA goes to the polls on a high.
Decoding the voters' message as the results roll in on Thursday will be complex, but a percentage poll significantly below 48% or a DA share of the vote above 20% will signal that South Africans are ready for a different conversation.