Johannesburg: South Africa's local elections delivered a sharp setback to the African National Congress (ANC) on Thursday, as partial results showed falling support for the party that ended apartheid.
With about 80 percent of the vote counted, the ANC was ahead nationwide but it recorded its worst electoral performance since white-minority rule fell 22 years ago.
The main Opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) was on course to hold Cape Town and was just ahead in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.
The capital Pretoria and the economic hub Johannesburg were a close fight between the DA and the ANC.
The results, which were expected to be concluded on Friday, open up a new era of local coalition politics in South Africa.
The ANC has won more than 60 percent of the vote at every election since the country's first multi-racial vote in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president.
Today evening it was on 54 percent -- down from 62 percent in the last municipal elections in 2011.
The DA was on 27 percent with the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) on seven percent, according to official results.
"The ANC is really losing ground, but it can join other political parties to form coalitions," Shadrack Gutto, director the Centre for African Renaissance Studies at the University of South Africa, told AFP.
"The politics of the country are changing at the local level and that will escalate come the general election in 2019."
Yesterday's vote was also a judgement on President Jacob Zuma, who has been plagued by a series of scandals since taking office in 2009.
An unemployment rate of 27 percent and GDP growth at zero percent this year have also eaten into his popularity.
"We have grown incredibly in several places, I'm quite happy," Mmusi Maimane, the DA's first black leader, told reporters.
He ruled out any local coalition deals with ANC, saying: "We can't campaign for change, and then team up with them."
Millions of voters had queued outside polling stations after an occasionally bitter campaign marked by disputes over alleged racial slurs.
A final Ipsos survey had placed the ANC and DA neck and neck in key cities after some undecided voters drifted back to the ruling party.
"Democracy is maturing so you will find... A dilution where you might not have very strong support for one party," ANC treasurer Zweli Mkhize said as results were still being announced.