The African National Congress (ANC) lost its grip on local government in Tshwane, home of the South African capital Pretoria, as results yesterday gave the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) a second big win in the ANC's worst election since the end of apartheid.
The results of Wednesday's voting have reshaped the political landscape in South Africa, where the ANC has ruled virtually unopposed since it ended white-minority rule in 1994, led by Nelson Mandela.
Unemployment, economic stagnation and scandals around President Jacob Zuma led voters to punish the ANC, changing the outlook for national elections in 2019 and potentially emboldening Zuma's rivals within the ANC to challenge him.
Saving some pride, the ANC won in Johannesburg, South Africa's economic and financial hub, taking 45 per cent of the vote to the DA's 38 per cent, but will have to form a coalition to govern.
Wins in Tshwane and in Nelson Mandela Bay, which includes the manufacturing hub Port Elizabeth, are a watershed for the DA, which also held Cape Town, a municipality that it has controlled since 2006.
Last year it elected its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, as it tries to shake off an image of a party mainly serving white interests.
"It signals to everyone that the tide in our country is turning," Maimane told reporters on yesterday.
The ANC still won the most votes overall and was working to form coalitions in the municipalities where it lost its majority.
"We are into negotiations as we speak," said Paul Mashatile, the ANC chairman in Gauteng province, which includes Tshwane and Johannesburg.
"It's quite clear that our people, our traditional supporters, are still with us but maybe not too many people came out to vote so we need to go back and find out why."
The DA will also need to form coalitions to govern in both Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.
In his first public remarks since the vote's outcome, Zuma said South Africa was a "democracy where differences of political opinion and diverse political preferences are allowed to flourish".
The ANC has lost support among voters who feel their lives have not improved, and the opposition has accused Zuma of mismanaging the economy. Millions of urban voters are now looking beyond its liberation struggle credentials and focusing on an economy teetering on the edge of a recession.
Zuma rattled investors in December by changing finance ministers twice in a week, sending the rand plummeting. The currency has since recovered and received a boost from the lack of violence during the local elections.
The president survived an impeachment vote in April after the Constitutional Court said he had broken the law by ignoring an order to repay some of $16 million in state funds spent on renovating his private home. Zuma has since said he will repay some of the money, as ordered by the court.
"The ANC may just become a rural party," said William Gumede, head of the Democracy Works Foundation think-tank.
The radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party led by Julius Malema, Zuma's one-time protege but now arch-foe, came a distant third in the local elections, with about 10 percent of the vote.
Malema has drawn support with promises to nationalise banks and land and redistribute among poor black people wealth still mostly in white hands - policies that both the DA and the ANC have not found palatable.
With the ANC and DA both seeking to rule in Johannesburg and Tshwane, the EFF could be courted where coalitions are needed.
Malema has not revealed who he would back, saying: "If anyone comes to us, we'll talk."