South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) is facing painful losses in four key cities and various municipalities, after around 80 per cent of local election results were counted on Thursday.

The ANC continued to lead the countrywide vote count at around 54 per cent of the vote, according to preliminary results from Wednesday's polls. But the main opposition party, Democratic Alliance (DA), had made major headway, garnering around 27 per cent.

Final results are expected on Friday.

After two decades of political dominance, the historic ANC liberation movement - which led the country out of the 46-year apartheid era in 1994 with Nelson Mandela at the helm - could lose its majority in the capital, Pretoria, as well as in Johannesburg and the car manufacturing hub of Port Elizabeth.

South Africa is made up of 259 municipalities that include eight large metropolitan ones. Currently, only one of these eight – Cape Town – is governed by the DA. The other seven are ANC-run.

Many South Africans have criticized President Jacob Zuma and the ANC for the lagging economic growth, high unemployment, widespread corruption and cronyism, lack of housing and crumbling education and health systems. Protests over poor service delivery are staged regularly in shantytowns around the country, and some of them have turned violent.

In a highly symbolic loss, the ANC dropped to second place in Zuma's hometown of Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal province. Nkandla became the embodiment of the scandals surrounding Zuma after he spent 250 million rand (around 17 million dollars at the time) of state money to renovate his private luxury villa.

This election appears to continue the ANC's decline in popularity, which has been slow but constant. The party received 62 per cent of the vote in 2014 national elections, down from nearly 66 per cent in 2009.

Roughly 26.3 million people of a population of 53 million were eligible to cast their votes.

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