The African National Congress (ANC) reeled from bruising local election results Friday as South African voters drift away from the celebrated party that led the anti-apartheid struggle.
With about 90 percent of the nationwide vote counted, the ANC was ahead overall but recorded its worst electoral performance since white-minority rule fell 22 years ago.
The party once led by Nelson Mandela was on 54 percent — sharply down from 62 percent in the last municipal elections in 2011.
On Friday morning, it conceded defeat to the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party in Port Elizabeth, an industrial city that was a key battleground of Wednesday\’s election.
The two parties were in a close fight for Pretoria, the capital, and Johannesburg, the country\’s economic centre, with the ANC set to lose its outright majorities in both cities.
"We know it\’s a tight race but I can assure you that we will emerge victorious in Tshwane (Pretoria), we will emerge victorious in Johannesburg," Jackson Mthembu, ANC chief whip in parliament, told reporters, striking an upbeat tone.
But losing Port Elizabeth was a humiliating blow for the ANC as the municipality is officially known as "Nelson Mandela Bay" in tribute to its past as a hotbed of anti-apartheid activism.
"The fall in support has been dramatic, in levels never seen before," political analyst Somadoda Fikeni told AFP.
"The poor performance, particularly in urban metros, points to declining support among the middle class.
"These voters are concerned about the issues affecting the economy and unemployment."
The results were seen as a marker ahead of the next general election due in 2019, which will include the presidency. President Jacob Zuma will not stand again after serving the maximum two terms.
According to official results on Friday morning, the DA was on 26 percent with the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) on eight percent.
"We are buoyant as we await the newest results that come in," the DA said in a statement.
"It is clear that South African voters have identified strongly with the DA."
The election was widely seen as a referendum on Zuma, who has been plagued by a series of scandals and court cases since taking office in 2009.
An unemployment rate of 27 percent and GDP growth at zero percent this year have added to his woes as frustration builds among poor black communities seeing scarce improvements since apartheid fell.
Zuma, 74, retains deep loyalty within the party and in many rural areas, but he could step down before his term ends in 2019.
"All of this points at Zuma, ultimately the buck stops with him," Fikeni said.
"The corroded moral authority of the ANC under Zuma is one of the factors, and his name keeps featuring in major political scandals."
With 93 percent of the nationwide vote counted, final results were due out later Friday for Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Contesting its first local poll after bursting onto the scene in the 2014 general election, the far-left EFF — led by the charismatic Julius Malema — could emerge in the influential role of kingmaker.
"(Our score) gives us a lot more decision-making and negotiating power," Mandisa Mashego, a senior EFF official, told reporters.
"We are not opposed to coalitions except with the governing party."
The EFF, which won six percent of the national vote in 2014, advocates land redistribution without compensation and the nationalisation of mines.
Turnout was about 58 percent as voters chose mayors and other local representatives responsible for hot-button issues including water, sanitation and power supplies.
Problems providing such basics trigger regular and sometimes violent "service delivery" protests in South Africa, where harsh socio-economic divisions remain a grim legacy of the apartheid era.