South Africa’s ruling African National Congress underwent its biggest electoral setback since apartheid ended, losing to its main opposition in the capital Pretoria on Saturday and falling short of an outright majority.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) which evolved out of the anti-apartheid movement and had a white party leader until last year, made a strong move out of its stronghold in the city of Cape Town, winning in at least three of the country's six largest municipalities.
The ANC managed, however, to beat the opposition DA in Johannesburg where it had been locked in a tight race.
Although the ANC led in the overall count having received 53 percent of municipal votes nationwide, it’s the party’s lowest percentage ever, with the DA managing to take 26 percent.
The possible formation of coalition governments would be the next challenge.
In a brief address shortly before the final results were announced, Zuma praised South Africans for a vote he called largely peaceful, free and fair.
"Our democracy is maturing," he said. "Let us get back to work and build our country together."
An earlier loss to the DA in the municipality of Nelson Mandela Bay, named for the ANC’s star and first black president, was especially bruising.
Before this election, the ANC had never lost a major black-majority municipality.
Since South Africa's first all-race election in 1994, the ANC has had widespread support on the strength of its successful fight against white-minority rule, while bringing basic amenities to many people who had had none. But this time, its hold has been weakened by corruption scandals and a stagnant economy that has frustrated the urban middle class, while poor communities have demanded better services.
"Election after election, the ANC has hung on to its past glory and kept its place in the hearts of most South Africans...This time round, though, it's not enough," the Mail & Guardian newspaper said in an editorial. On social media, South Africans mocked President Jacob Zuma's recent claim that the ANC would rule "until Jesus comes back".
The election has been notable for its peaceful power shift away from an entrenched government in Africa, testifying to the strength of South Africa's democracy. In contrast, 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe has kept control since independence in 1980 with a series of disputed elections and crackdowns on dissent.
The Democratic Alliance runs the country's second largest city, Cape Town, the only major South African city where blacks are in the minority among white and mixed-race residents. It has been pushing hard to win supporters in other regions, saying its brand is good governance.
The party's leader, 36-year-old Mmusi Maimane, had predicted victory in Tshwane.
"For far too long, the ANC has governed South Africa with absolute impunity," Maimane told reporters Saturday. He said the idea that his party was a white one has been "completely shattered".
The Democratic Alliance angered the ANC last month by declaring that it was the only party that could realise Mandela's dream of a "prosperous, united and non-racial South Africa".
Maimane immediately looked ahead to presidential elections. "The 2019 campaign starts now," he said.
A more radical opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, contested the local elections for the first time and received 8 percent of the vote nationwide after promising measures it says will help the poor.
The results for the ANC could put pressure on the 74-year-old Zuma to leave office before his mandate ends in 2019, political analysts said. Zuma's office said Saturday that he would attend the announcement of the final election results.
The ANC has said "we will reflect and introspect where our support has dropped". It retained support in many rural areas in a country where blacks make up 80 percent of the population.
The South African economy has stagnated since the global financial crisis in 2008, and the World Bank says the country has one of the highest rates of inequality in the world.
Scandals swirling around Zuma have also hurt the ANC. Opposition groups have seized on the revelation that the state paid more than $20 million for upgrades to Zuma's private home. The Constitutional Court recently said Zuma violated the constitution and instructed him to reimburse the state $507,000.