ANC supporters at the final rally. (ANC via Twitter)
President Cyril Ramaphosa's ANC will retain its parliamentary majority after polls but with diminished support, complicating efforts to revive the embattled party and the country's flagging economy, results showed on Thursday.
ANC, in power since 1994, surged into the lead with nearly 57% after almost 70% of the votes were officially tallied following Wednesday's vote.
By 22:25 on Thursday evening, 67.54% of the votes had been captured, with the ANC building a healthy lead over its competitors, having amassed 56.76% of the vote.
Ramaphosa, 66, took over as the leader of the ANC last year after the party forced then-president Jacob Zuma to resign after nine years dominated by corruption allegations and economic problems.
Results released by the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) showed the ANC's closest rival, the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) trailing with 22.38% of the vote, similar to their final figure in the 2014 elections, where they gained 22.23% of the electorate.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, founded six years ago by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, was in third place standing on 9.89% or just over one million votes nationwide on Thursday night.
Final results are expected to be officially certified on Saturday.
A new projection by South Africa's respected Council for Scientific and Industrial Research forecast the ANC would win with 57% - a five percentage point drop from the last election in 2014.
ANC guarded about results
Jessie Duarte, the ANC deputy secretary general, said the partial results were neither a "disappointment" nor a "surprise".
"What I think is important to recognise is the deepening of our democracy," she said at the IEC in Pretoria.
The party that wins the most seats in parliament selects the country's president, who will be sworn in on May 25.
'The pressure is really on Ramaphosa in the next five years'
"This is an election that will really offer the ANC a last chance to kickstart economic growth," said analyst Daniel Silke. "The pressure is really on Ramaphosa in the next five years."
Ramaphosa has so far faced resistance to his reform agenda, especially from Zuma's allies who still occupy several high-ranking positions in the party and government.
After casting his ballot on Wednesday, Ramaphosa said the election was "heralding a new dawn... a period of renewal, a period of hope".
The ANC's reputation was badly sullied under Zuma. Its support has fallen in every election since 2004 with the party taking 54% in 2016 municipal elections, compared with 62% in 2014's national vote.
Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela and the ANC were swept to power with a landslide in the country's first multi-racial polls that marked the end of white minority rule in 1994.
Most opinion surveys before the vote had suggested the ANC would secure nearly 60% of the vote because of Ramaphosa's appeal and a fractured opposition.
Forty-eight parties contested the elections - a record number.
The conservative and predominantly white Freedom Front Plus party, founded in 1994 during the negotiations to end apartheid, was performing strongly as the fourth biggest party in the vote with over 270 000 votes in their favour.
READ: FF Plus thanked SA for the votes – with an image it expropriated without compensation
After gaining 2.57% of the vote by Thursday night, this was an already significantly better result than their final figure in the 2014 election, where they garnered 165 715 votes at final tally.
'The poor are getting poorer'
The ANC has been confronted by deepening public anger over its failure to tackle poverty and inequality in the post-apartheid era.
"We have given them 25 years but the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer," said voter Anmareth Preece, 28, a teacher. "We need a government that governs for the people, not for themselves."
The economy grew just 0.8% in 2018 and unemployment hovers around 27% - soaring to over 50% among young people.
The DA is hoping to shed its image as a white, middle-class party with its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, contesting his first general election since taking the helm in 2015.
'Black South Africans have voted for the DA, white South Africans have voted for the DA'
"Black South Africans have voted for the DA, white South Africans have voted for the DA. I'm quite content with where we are at the moment as a party," he told reporters at the results centre.
Malema's EFF is predicted to make major gains, growing from 6.3% to a forecast 11%.
"We got into the race for significant change," said EFF secretary general Godrich Gardee.
Mandla Booi, 45, a voter in Port Elizabeth on the south coast, said "the ANC has taken people for granted".
"There is some arrogance which has crept in."
About 26.8 million voters were registered to cast their ballots but only an estimated 65% did so.
- Additional reporting by News24
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