Election officials start the ballot counting process at a polling station during municipal elections. (Schalk van Zuydam, AP)
Pretoria - Political horse trading has started on the floor of the national IEC results centre, as provisional vote tallies gradually trickle in and reality dawns after months of election campaigning.
By 16:00 on Thursday, 75% of the votes had been counted and audited, with results from the metros the slowest to come in.
The buzz on the floor grew toward the afternoon, with most activity around the Democratic Alliance’s table - the party that looks set to score the most from these elections after an almost year-long campaign.
A large team of party election hacks - most of them old hands, like DA chairperson Mike Moriarty and federal council chairperson James Selfe - in branded blue T-shirts stood around the table watching and analysing results, while a smiling spokesperson, Phumzile van Damme, spoke to journalists.
Although DA leader Mmusi Maimane declared that it was too early to talk about coalitions, a source in the Economic Freedom Fighters said they have asked the DA for a meeting next week to discuss possible co-operation.
Click here for all the local elections news
All Maimane would say was: "We will never go into a coalition that will undermine our ability to deliver to the people of South Africa.
"One of our key brands as party is that we govern better than anyone else."
The EFF would, apparently, agree to team up with the DA to have them governing in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, while the red brigade would want to govern in Johannesburg or Ekurhuleni in return.
This might not find favour with the DA because, even though News24’s projections show that the African National Congress and DA could both get 42% in the metro and the EFF 10% - which would make the EFF the kingmaker - the party’s showing in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro isn’t significant enough to give it bargaining power there.
Despite ANC sources claiming that the party would win up to 37 out of that metro's 60 wards, News24’s projections for Nelson Mandela Bay show that the DA could get just above 47%, with the ANC set to get in the low 40s. The United Democratic Movement is most likely to be in a kingmaker position here.
Even though provisional results – with counting ongoing – in Johannesburg put the DA at 42.5% and the ANC at 41.3%, News24’s projections were that the DA could emerge with 44.5% of the vote and the ANC with 38.5%, making the EFF - with its 10% of the vote - a possible kingmaker here too.
Meanwhile, talk on the floor was that the Freedom Front Plus, which ran its campaign on the ticket of get rid of an ANC government, had indicated that it would talk to the ANC - and not the DA – about coalitions in Tshwane, where it was the third biggest party in the council before the elections, with 1.7% of the 2011 vote.
Check live elections results here
At the ANC table, party treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize remained poker faced as he focussed on the results board.
The governing party’s results usually only pick up when vote tallies in the larger voting districts come in – which is expected overnight or in the early hours of tomorrow morning - and Mkhize knows that.
Still, it is an agonising wait.
An ANC-aligned government official, however, said in a private conversation that the party was expecting an underwhelming result.
Already in the 2014 general elections, its support in the Gauteng metros showed a drop. "We have been asking ourselves the difficult questions for two years already," he said.
'We have made up what we lost in 2014'
ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte, however, looked on edge and did not even muster a smile to greet journalists. A party official at a nearby table even claimed that Duarte had given them - and a spokesperson from another party - the middle finger.
EFF secretary general Godrich Gardee had not slept all night and by 12:00 the stress was showing. Even though his party had mustered almost 8% of the national vote, it had barely shown any growth since the 2014 elections.
Asked to comment about his party having won two wards - one in Rustenburg around Marikana and the other one in KwaZulu-Natal’s Nongoma Municipality, according to a tweet by @sentletse - Gardee indicated that he would rather finish his phone conversation. For the EFF it was control of a council that mattered, not wards, he said.
EFF deputy leader Floyd Shivambu and chairperson Dali Mpofu walked into the results centre after lunch time, but initially refused to speak to the journalists that accosted them, because of other urgent business.
The Inkatha Freedom Party table was all smiles, however, as its support edged past 5% nationally, with a significant portion of the KwaZulu-Natal vote still to come in. "We have made up what we lost in 2014," IFP MP Liesl van der Merwe said.
This was an indication that it had gained back the vote from supporters of the breakaway National Freedom Party, which botched up its elections registration and then urged its supporters to vote for the ANC. This apparently never happened.
- Find everything you need to know about the 2016 Local Government Elections at our News24 Elections site, including the latest news and detailed, interactive maps for how South Africa has voted over the past 3 elections, or download the app for iOS and Android.