South Africa's ruling party has suffered its worst election result since the end of apartheid, tipping the country into a new era of coalition politics as several of its biggest cities fall under the potential control of opposition parties.
The ruling African National Congress has narrowly retained its overall majority in the local election results, but its declining support is a sign of growing disillusionment with the former liberation movement and its scandal-plagued leader, President Jacob Zuma.
After losing control of Cape Town in earlier elections, the ANC has now lost its majority in the cities of Port Elizabeth and Pretoria, where the opposition parties will try to cobble together a coalition government over the next two weeks. Another key city, Johannesburg, was still too close to call with incomplete results on Thursday night.
Nationally, with 90 per cent of ballots counted from Wednesday's local elections, the ANC held 54 per cent of the vote, down sharply from 62 per cent in the national election two years ago, while the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) had climbed to 26 per cent, up from 22 per cent in the previous national election.
A third party, the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters, held 8 per cent of the vote and could emerge as king maker in some cities where the opposition will seek to negotiate a coalition.
The key question now is whether the ANC will force the unpopular Mr. Zuma to step down before the end of his presidential term in 2019. But he could still survive, since his loyalists remain in control of most of the ANC's national executive.
Political analyst Richard Calland called it a "stinging rebuke" for the ruling party in many parts of the country. In a commentary published on Thursday, he said the ANC's support was eroding among its core supporters in the black, urban working class.
"The fundamental shifts in South Africa's electoral map are emerging clearly enough," Mr. Calland wrote.
"The notion that the ANC's electoral dominance is impenetrable is squashed. Its grip on power is slipping; it can be challenged; voters across the land are willing to switch sides – despite, or perhaps because of, the heavily negative scare tactics of the ANC in the final phase of the campaign."
In the final days of the campaign, Mr. Zuma called on black people to unite behind the ANC, while he denounced the DA as a party of "whites" and "oppressors." The slogans, a contradiction of the ANC's multiracial traditions, failed to dent the growth of the DA under its first black leader, 36-year-old former pastor Mmusi Maimane.
In an attempt to avoid defeat, the ANC last year appointed former soccer czar Danny Jordaan as mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay (the metropolitan area where Port Elizabeth is located), hoping to capitalize on his popularity for his role in bringing the soccer World Cup to South Africa in 2010. But his reputation was later tainted by U.S. allegations that South Africa paid a $10-million (U.S.) bribe for the right to host the World Cup.
In addition to its losses in several big cities, the ANC also suffered the embarrassment of losing Mr. Zuma's hometown of Nkandla, a largely rural region where the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party expanded its vote total from the previous election.
In a statement on Thursday, the ANC insisted it was "buoyant and energized" because it had avoided the "doomsday predictions" of many pollsters and commentators.
The DA Leader, Mr. Maimane, said he was excited by the "incredible growth" of the opposition party. He was reported to be already contacting smaller parties as potential allies for the DA's planned governing coalition in Nelson Mandela Bay, which would oust Mr. Jordaan from the mayoral position.