South Africa's local elections have delivered a sharp setback to the African National Congress (ANC), as partial results showed falling support for the party that ended apartheid.

With about 80 percent of the vote counted on Thursday, the ANC was ahead nationwide but it recorded its worst electoral performance since white-minority rule fell 22 years ago.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) was on course to hold Cape Town and was just ahead in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.

The capital Pretoria and the economic hub Johannesburg were a close fight between the DA and the ANC.

"It looks like the ANC has been reduced and humbled in many ways," Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

"It looks like the verdict coming from the urban areas is negative in such that many will start blaming the leader of the party [Jacob Zuma] because he has been limping from one particular negative story to the other since December when he fired the finance minister."

READ MORE: South African local elections - ANC at a crossroads

Fikeni explained that there had been debates within the ANC whether to use Zuma as the "face of the party or not".

"The solid support he got from within party ... might not have worked well in urban centres where you have a high concentration of a highly-sophisticated middle class and an organised working class."

The ANC has won more than 60 percent of the vote at every election since the country's first multi-racial vote in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president.

With about half of the vote counted, the ANC had 52 percent support nationwide, with the DA on 30 percent and the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) on seven percent, according to official results.

'Voted for change'

The count is seen as a marker ahead of the next general election due in 2019.

The poll is also a mid-term reflection on the performance of President Jacob Zuma, who has been plagued by economic woes and a series of scandals since taking office in 2009.

The ANC has dominated the political landscape since the fall of white-minority rule, but a faltering economy, rampant corruption and soaring unemployment have eaten into the party's popularity.

A final Ipsos survey earlier this week placed the ANC and DA in a close battle.

"I just voted DA for change," said Claire King, 30, in Port Elizabeth central business district.

"I just think we now need change in our country. Let's give the DA a chance and see what happens."

Both the ANC and DA may be forced to court smaller parties and independent candidates to cobble together outright municipal majorities.

READ MORE: South Africa local elections a litmus test for ANC

Even if the ANC maintains its hold on local power through party alliances, any overall drop in support would be a loss, said Silke.

Contesting its first local poll after bursting onto the scene in the 2014 general election, the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EEF) may find itself playing kingmaker.

The party, which won six percent of the vote in 2014, advocates land redistribution without compensation and the nationalisation of mines.

A record 26.3 million people registered to choose mayors and other local representatives responsible for hot-button issues including water, sanitation and power supplies.

With most of the result due in Thursday, a major collapse of support for the ANC could pile pressure on Zuma, 74, to step down before his second term ends in 2019.

South Africa's electoral commission said late Wednesday voting had proceeded smoothly and without major incident.

Inside Story - Is South Africa using the past to open way for the future?

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies