South Africa's main opposition party made major gains against the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in local elections, preliminary results showed Friday, with the ANC suffering major losses for the first time since it came to power 20 years ago.

With 98 per cent of ballots counted, the Democratic Alliance (DA) emerged as a rising power against the ANC in several districts, winning the majority of votes in Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and the economically important Western Cape province, where Cape Town is located.

After two decades of political dominance, the historic ANC liberation movement - once led by Nelson Mandela - was also at risk of losing its majority in the capital Pretoria and the economic metropole Johannesburg, where the results were still too close to call.

The ANC led the countrywide elections overall, garnering 54.2 per cent support as compared with the DA's 26.6 per cent.

In the last local elections, in 2011, the ANC won 61.9 per cent of votes, followed by the DA with 23.9 per cent.

In a highly symbolic loss, the ANC dropped to second place in Zuma's hometown of Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal province.

Many South Africans have criticized President Jacob Zuma and the ANC for lagging economic growth, high unemployment, widespread corruption and cronyism, lack of housing and crumbling education and health systems.

The election appears to reflect 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.

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