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Election officials count ballots after the closing of the local government elections, at a farm in Alewynspoort, outside Johannesburg, South Africa, on Nov. 1.SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) on Wednesday was heading for its worst election result since taking power in 1994, taking less than half of votes in local polls a top party official described as a “message to shape up”.

With results in from over 80% of more than 23,000 polling stations, the ANC had 46% of the national vote, down from 54% in 2016, itself the worst result yet. Party officials acknowledged public anger over poor services and corruption.

Turnout was at a new low of 47% – though still higher than in many Western countries’ municipal elections – from 58% in 2016, initial electoral commission figures showed.

It was unclear to what extent the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in keeping people away, but ANC officials saw clear evidence of voters being fed up.

“These results, and the turnout, is a message to our movement to shape up,” ANC Deputy Secretary General Jessie Duarte told a news conference at the results centre.

Twenty-seven years after triumphing over the racist apartheid system, the ANC has failed to significantly reduce South Africa’s stark inequalities between rich and poor, or to consistently provide services like electricity, water and sewerage.

“It is an unambiguous signal to the ANC from the electorate: … people are disappointed in the ANC,” Duarte said, adding that party officials would discuss their plans for building coalitions in places where they did not win outright.

Fikile Mbalula, the transport minister who oversaw the ANC’s election campaign, told reporters the outcome could have been worse.

“We’re not politically obliterated … That could have happened,” he said.

Despite the disappointing showing for the former liberation movement of Nelson Mandela, results as of Wednesday afternoon showed its two nearest rivals far behind.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) stood second on 22% and the Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters third with 10%.

The ANC had been hoping to wrest back control of key metropolitan areas which it lost to opposition-led coalitions in 2016 like Johannesburg and Pretoria, but both cities were neck-and-neck by 1600 GMT on Wednesday.

In Johannesburg, the ANC was on 31% and the DA 30%, based on results from 55% of polling stations, and in the municipality that includes Pretoria it was on 33% versus 34% for the DA with results in from 36% of polling stations.

In the municipality that includes the port city of Durban, which in July was rocked by some of the worst civil unrest since the end of apartheid, the ANC was on 43%; the DA, 27%. In 2016, the ANC won 56% of the vote there.

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