Pretoria: South Africa's ANC was on track for its worst electoral performance since the end of apartheid on Friday as voters vented anger about high unemployment and corruption in municipal elections that herald a sea change in politics and society.
The African National Congress has ruled virtually unopposed since it ended white-minority rule in 1994 with Nelson Mandela at its helm, but has lost support - particularly in cities - among voters who feel their lives have not improved and accuse President Jacob Zuma of mismanaging the economy. The ANC was still leading in the overall count in the nationwide municipal vote, with 95 per cent of ballots counted. But it lost to the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) in the municipality of Nelson Mandela Bay, which includes the city of Port Elizabeth, and was trailing in Tshwane, home to the capital Pretoria.
Since the end of apartheid, the ANC had enjoyed an iron electoral grip on these areas, as well as on the economic hub of Johannesburg - where it held just a narrow lead on Friday.
Now, no party looks likely to win a majority in these three urban centres, ushering in a new era of coalition politics as South Africa shifts from what has effectively been a one-party system in the period immediately post-apartheid.
This shift reshapes the political landscape in South Africa ahead of the 2019 national election, and may also embolden Zuma's rivals within the ANC to challenge him.
The DA has retained control of Cape Town, which it has held since 2006.
The ANC chief whip, Jackson Mthembu, said the losses across the country were "a worrying trend" for the ruling party and would prompt soul-searching.
"We need to have a serious introspection, and that is what we will do."
The election also represents a political renaissance for the DA, which last year elected its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, as part of its efforts to shake off its image as a party that mainly serves white interests.
"In the region named after Nelson Mandela, who promoted reconciliation, I think it is fitting that we have to cooperate with other political parties," said Athol Trollip, the DA's mayoral candidate in the bay area.
Final results are due on Saturday.
The ANC has lost its grip on the major cities where millions of black people are now looking beyond its liberation struggle credentials and focusing on weak growth prospects for an economy teetering on the edge of a recession.
Voters, facing a lack of jobs and poor basic services, have been incensed by a string of corruption scandals that have engulfed Zuma.
"In many respects the elections were exactly about national issues, national policy failures and poor national leadership as much as they were about local issues and local problems," said Gary van Staden, political analyst with NKC African Economics.
The radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, which is led by Julius Malema, Zuma's one-time protege, is participating in only its second election and was running a distant third in the votes counted.
It has, however, won some support from voters frustrated about inequality in a country where black people make up about 80 per cent of the 54 million population, yet most of the economy in terms of ownership of land and companies remains in the hands of white people, who account for about 8 per cent of the population.
Malema plans to redistribute among poor black people wealth still mostly in white hands.
Voters are losing patience with Zuma, who rattled investors in December by changing finance ministers twice in a week, sending the rand currency plummeting.
The president survived an impeachment vote in April after the Constitutional Court said he breached the law by ignoring an order to repay some of the $16 million in state funds spent on renovating his private home in Nkandla.
Zuma has since said he will repay some of the money.
The rand held its ground close to a nine-month high against the dollar early on Friday, partly boosted by the smooth running of the elections.
"Foreign investors will probably welcome the fact that reduced support for the ruling ANC has helped the centrist DA rather than the leftist EFF," said John Ashbourne, Africa analyst at Capital Economics, in a note.