President Cyril Ramaphosa's ruling ANC won re-election on Friday with an absolute majority in parliament, results showed, but with diminished support, complicating economic revival and anti-corruption efforts.
The results, published by the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), are the party's worst national showing since Nelson Mandela led it to victory in the first multi-racial polls after apartheid ended in 1994.
The ANC held a comfortable lead with 57.67% at 23:00 after 98% of voting districts were officially tallied following Wednesday's vote.
That means they will be mathematically assured more than 50% of votes cast in the final official tally, due to be announced on Saturday.
Seats in parliament are allocated based on vote share and the party with the most representatives selects the president, who will be sworn in on May 25.
Results released by the IEC showed the ANC's closest rival, the main opposition DA, trailing with a distant 20.70% of the vote.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, founded six years ago by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, was in third place with 10.63% - up four percentage points on 2014.
"The ANC is never going to perform any better, it's a dying party"
"The ANC are being given a chance," said political analyst Lumkile Mondi. "This is an opportunity for them to reincarnate themselves."
"The ANC is never going to perform any better, it's a dying party, it continues shedding votes - because it does not have economic management capability."
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".
Asked if Ramaphosa's favourable reputation had saved the ANC from defeat, party secretary general Ace Magashule insisted "people have voted the ANC, they haven't voted for any person".
But Susan Booysen, a visiting professor at the Wits School of governance, said "it is a lower percentage but it is way higher for the ANC than it would have been had Zuma been still in power".
The conservative and predominantly white Freedom Front Plus party, founded in 1994 during the negotiations to end apartheid, was performing unexpectedly well as the fifth-placed party in the vote. They were previously seventh.
The economy grew just 0.8% in 2018 and unemployment hovers around 27% - soaring to over 50% among young people.
"(We) liberated this country so we would have expected more," said ANC spokesperson Dakota Legoete ahead of the latest results. "(But) in 2014 we did not have 48 parties... now we have 48 parties, 47 of them are competing for the jugular vein of the ANC."
About 26.8 million people were registered to vote but only around 65.6% turned out.
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."
'Era of political realignment'
"Even though we've lost some votes, we've held the centre - and I will lead that project going forward," Mmusi Maimane told reporters at the results centre.
"It may not have happened this time, but come 2021, 2024 (elections) we can demonstrate... that we can hold South Africans together."
Malema's EFF made major gains, growing from 6.3% in the 2014 poll.
"In the next election there will not be any outright winner... so we are going to enter the era of coalitions before there's another big party that can emerge," said EFF chairperson Dali Mpofu. "We are going into an era of political realignment."
Find everything you need to know about the 2019 National and Provincial 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. Make sure your News24 app is updated to access all our elections coverage in one place.