JOHANNESBURG, Oct 7 (Reuters) - South Africa's main political parties have clashed over unpopular road tolls that analysts say could boost the chance of an election upset in the country's economic hub against the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has erected huge banners on the road from Johannesburg to Pretoria with the slogan: "E-tolls. Proudly brought to you by the ANC" - seizing on the charges particularly hated by middle class voters.
The ANC, which has dominated since the end of white rule in 1994, is certain to win next year's vote nationwide.
But the opposition, which already controls Western Cape province that includes Cape Town, has its sights set on Gauteng province, which includes both the commercial hub and the capital.
"E-tolls were conceived under the watch of an ANC minister, supported by an ANC executive in Gauteng, passed into law by an ANC majority Parliament and signed, sealed and delivered by an ANC president," the DA's candidate for Gauteng premier, Mmusi Maimane, said at the weekend.
Senior ANC figure, Transport Minister Dipuo Peters, hit back at the banners on Monday.
"That is the work of cowards, of people who don't want to acknowledge what the ANC has brought to South Africa. We really don't have time for such people," she told the SABC state broadcaster.
Analysts have said the tone of the exchange, and months of media debate and legal challenges against the payment system, suggest both parties are gearing up for a close fight in Gauteng, home to a quarter of all South Africans.
"This will cost the ANC votes in the 2014 poll, especially in the closely contested Gauteng and especially amongst the class of people the ANC is, supposedly, at risk of losing to opposition parties," said political analyst Nic Borain, referring to middle class voters.
The government paid for the massive upgrades to Africa's busiest road network with more than $2 billion in debt that has to be repaid, and is adamant that road-users, rather than general tax-payers, should bear the brunt of the cost.
Opposition to the tolls, which have not yet started due to numerous legal challenges, has crossed South Africa's deep racial and social divides.
Toll collection was meant to start in June 2011 but has been held back by lawsuits that have gone as high as the Constitutional Court. The delays led Moody's to downgrade the Roads Agency's credit rating last month. (Reporting by Peroshni Govender; Editing by Ed Cropley and Andrew Heavens)