After a bitter campaign tinged with liberation rhetoric and racial jibes, the African National Congress has maintained its grip on most of South Africa's cities and towns, despite substantial gains by the main opposition party.
The ruling ANC captured about 63 per cent of the vote in South Africa's local elections, down slightly from previous elections. The biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, strengthened to about 22 per cent of the vote, its best performance in the 17 years since apartheid ended.
The DA, which evolved out of a white-led liberal opposition party in the apartheid era, retained its control of Cape Town but appears to have fallen short of winning any other major cities, with official results not yet confirmed.
Led by former journalist Helen Zille, who speaks the Xhosa language, the DA campaigned energetically for the black vote in townships and cities across the country. But its strategists acknowledged that it captured only about 6 per cent of the black vote in this election – better than the 2 per cent it gained in the last election, but far from a breakthrough.
The vast majority of blacks have remained loyal to the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, the 92-year-old liberation hero who again cast his ballot for the ANC this week despite increasingly frail health.
Worried by the growth of opposition support, the ANC pulled out all the stops in this election. In a speech just three days before the vote, President Jacob Zuma reminded the black voters of the horrors of apartheid, quoting extensively from the racist words of apartheid-era leaders. He urged voters to "defend our hard-won freedom" – implying that it was under threat from the opposition.
The head of the ANC's youth wing, Julius Malema, went much further. He denounced the DA as a party of whites. He described white farmers as "criminals" who had stolen their land. And he sarcastically referred to Ms. Zille as "madam" – using the term that black servants traditionally use for white suburban matrons in South Africa.
Despite the vitriolic attacks, the DA increased its support from the last local and national elections, when it won 15 to 17 per cent of the vote. But most of this increase came from the collapse of smaller parties, including the Congress of the People, a party formed by ANC dissidents who split away from the ruling party in 2008. After winning 7 per cent of the vote in 2009 and appearing to offer a fresh alternative for black voters, it was consumed by internal feuding and fell to just 2 per cent this week.
The DA has campaigned as the "party of good government," citing its track record in running Cape Town and the surrounding Western Cape province. The ANC has been widely criticized for corruption and inefficient government, and there are mounting frustrations over a lack of electricity and running water in many poor communities.
Protests by township dwellers, often erupting into violence, have soared from 10 in 2004 to a record 111 last year. One survey found that nearly 60 per cent of South Africans in major urban areas are dissatisfied with their local governments.
Compared with other African countries, however, South Africa is wealthier and provides more extensive government services. More than 80 per cent of its households have electricity today, compared with 36 per cent when apartheid ended.
Some analysts say the election this week has heralded a historic shift to a two-party political system in South Africa, with increasingly competitive elections likely in the future. But others predict that it could take a generation before the ANC faces a real challenge to its electoral dominance.