JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Sylvia Mashile bitterly recalls the cramped two-room house she and six other relatives called home in a shantytown in South Africa, where the lack of affordable housing may cost the ruling party at next week's local elections.
The housing deficit is an emotive issue in Africa's most industrialised country, where 19 percent of families live in informal dwellings more than two decades after the end of apartheid rule despite promises by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party to fast-track new homes for the poor.
Next to the mansions and skyscrapers in Sandton, Africa's richest suburb in Johannesburg, the poor, like Mashile and her family in nearby Alexandra township, struggle to make ends meet.
Since decades of white minority rule ended in 1994, areas such as Sandton and "Alex", as it is locally known, have offered stark examples of lingering economic disparities.
"My mother has been to the housing department many times now only to be told that 'there is no house yet'," said Mashile, 33, who lives in Alex where many share water, toilets and illegal power connections.
Mashile says her mother has waited for a government-provided home since 1996, when the family moved to Alex.
Buyisiwe Dube, 40, a cleaner in Sandton, lives in a one-room shack in Alex. In 2007 she had to send her two children back home in Kwa-Zulu-Natal province, more than 500 km (310 miles) away, as the shack had become too small for the three of them.
"I applied for a house in 1997 ... I'm still waiting for it. When it rains, water drips inside and it's also cold in winter."
Frustration over the pace of housing delivery preoccupies many voters, analysts say. "It will not be a one-issue election but a combination of issues with housing being one of the most important," said Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst at the University of South Africa in Pretoria.
ANC policies have helped more blacks climb into the wealthy bracket but informal, squalid settlements have mushroomed around cities as demand for housing has far outstripped the country's ability to provide it.
President Jacob Zuma has brushed off criticism, saying his government has a plan to address the shortages.
"The ANC government has made plans to build more houses for our people in the near future," Zuma told residents at a campaign rally in Duncan Village, near East London.
Gauteng province, which includes the capital Pretoria and the commercial hub of Johannesburg, is an ANC stronghold but the party faces a stern test from opposition parties.
Polls show ANC support could drop to 31 percent from 59 percent in Johannesburg compared with the previous local election in 2011, and to 23 percent from 55 percent in Tshwane municipality where Pretoria is situated.
The ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters, whose promise to redistribute the wealth still largely held by whites among poor blacks, has drawn many in Alex to its ranks, residents said.
"Our people live in shacks. They have no electricity, water and toilets. We want to end that," EFF leader Julius Malema said at an election rally this month.
The official opposition party Democratic Alliance has promised to expedite housing to those on the waiting list.
Lungisani Gumede, 39, a truck driver, said he has been living in a one-room shack for more than 13 years.
"I don't believe them (ANC) anymore when they say they will give us houses. They only come to us with promises during an election ... A house is an inheritance. If I get it, it will mean that my kids and their kids will have it."
Editing by James Macharia/Mark Heinrich