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SAfrica ruling party stays strong despite opposition gains

South Africa’s main opposition looked set for its best-ever showing in local polls, but the ruling African National Congress still held more than 60 percent of the votes counted Thursday.

With about 45 percent of votes reported, the ANC had taken nearly 62 percent of ballots cast nationwide, with the opposition Democratic Alliance at 25 percent.

Most major cities were still counting ballots, but if that trend continues, the result would be the DA’s strongest performance yet while the ANC would see a dip from the 66 percent scored in the 2006 local polls.

Chief electoral officer Pansy Tlakula told a press briefing that she believed at least 40 percent of the 23.65 million registered voters had turned out. Final results are expected by the weekend.

The DA’s gains came after the party’s merger with the smaller Independent Democrats and amid dwindling support for smaller opposition parties.

The opposition also sought to capitalise on growing frustration with the ANC, which has faced an explosion of anti-government protests by poor South Africans demanding essential services like water, electricity and housing.

Major protests rocketed from just 10 in 2004 to 111 last year, according to research group Municipal IQ, but many South Africans still cannot imagine leaving behind the ANC — the party of Nelson Mandela which led the struggle against apartheid.

The Democratic Alliance, which succeeded a liberal white anti-apartheid party, actively campaigned in townships to lure new voters and shed its elitist image.

Opposition leader Helen Zille sang and danced at rallies, greeted supporters in Xhosa, and showcased the DA’s management of Cape Town as a model of good government.

The DA won Cape Town in 2006, which it has governed in a coalition. The party could make enough gains that could allow it to govern alone in the city.

The two parties were running neck-and-neck in Nelson Mandela Bay, the municipality that includes the industrial city of Port Elizabeth, but the ANC looked set to retain control of most other major cities.

The ANC lost ground in eight out of nine provinces in 2009 general polls, but its election head Fikile Mbalulu insisted the party was not worried by the opposition’s aggressive campaigning.

“We are not scared, we are actually happy that other parties were campaigning in the manner they were campaigning. This is in our blood, we are used to it, it’s in our DNA,” said Mbalula.

“What we can say is that we are confident of an overwhelming victory.”

ANC leaders have threatened ancestral wrath, warned that an opposition vote was one for for the devil, dubbed Zille a “madam” and said a non-ANC ballot will worsen ageing Mandela’s health.

Despite the heated rhetoric, the campaign proceeded peacefully and the actual balloting went off with only minor hitches.

The Sowetan newspaper praised the polling, with a front-page headline: “Thumbs up for peaceful election.”

“South Africans should be proud of our growing political maturity and ability to pull off countrywide elections with consummate ease,” The Star newspaper said in an editorial.