SPARE a thought for Jacob Zuma, president of the sharply diminished ANC, who presided last week over his party’s worst election result since 1994. His controversial homestead in Nkandla is now in a municipality controlled by his provincial nemesis, the Inkatha Freedom Party.

It doesn’t get any better when he goes to work: In Pretoria, where his Union Building office enjoys sweeping vistas of metropolitan Tshwane, Zuma gazes with sorrow at a city in which his national opponents, the DA, will likely lead an administration. It gets even worse when he flies to Cape Town to attend Parliament. There, the DA has strengthened its hold on power by sweeping to victory with two-thirds of the vote, the largest majority achieved by any party in any of the eight metros in the country.

In fact, in only three of them — Buffalo City (East London), Mangaung (Greater Bloemfontein) and eThekwini (Durban and surrounds) — did the ANC get beyond 50%, and in each case, with precipitous declines of support more or less mirroring the drop-off throughout the country. Its 54% of the national total is largely propped up by its continuing hold on KwaZulu-Natal and the rural provinces of Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Free State. Yet even in this space, North West, which delivered a 74% majority to the governing party in the last local election, declined to below 60%.

Zuma said in a pre-election speech that the “ancestors” would view with disfavour votes for the opposition. Last Wednesday, the capital of the ancestral province of the ANC, named in honour of its most famous son, Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape, ousted the ANC administration and placed power in the hands of Athol Trollip and a DA-led local government.

It is in the cities, the bellwether of the country’s economy and where the bulk of South Africans live and work, that the election drama unfolded. Usually, election results are open to many interpretations. Last Wednesday’s poll is no exception, though there are some very clear and unambiguous consequences, alongside some big winners and losers and those in-between.

Even though he finished second nationally, the big winner was DA leader Mmusi Maimane. He needed to post a metro win somewhere outside Cape Town. Instead, he got two (Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane) and a toss-up in the third (Johannesburg), where the DA total exceeded even the party’s most optimistic prediction.

The scale of his achievement is, objectively, monumental. Douglas Gibson, a veteran opposition politician, noted in 1989 when the Democratic Party was formed that this was the first time in white SA’s political history that the new party was not simply a rearrangement of the furniture of the old United Party. Up until last Wednesday, in percentage terms at least, this was also true of the DA’s trajectory. It consolidated the traditional opposition vote. Although it is the only party since 1994 to have grown in every national and municipal election, its vote total was more or less a combination of the percentages achieved in 1994 by the National Party (20%) and the Democratic Party (1.7%). However, such lazy analysis hides the shrinking demographic of the party’s backbone of white support.

Whereas the Development Bank put the white percentage of the population at 14% in 1993, the latest census suggests it has fallen to 8.9%. So, even to keep its previous voting totals, the DA had obviously grown beyond its white (and coloured) heartlands.

Posting about 27% on the Independent Electoral Commission of SA results board on Saturday night, and drilling down into voting districts in Soweto (where a typical DA result was about 9%) means the party, in addition to huge mobilisation in its suburban strongholds, is gaining respectability and real traction in the townships. Of course, an additional fact, highlighted by ace analyst Dawie Scholtz, was the magic for the opposition and nightmare for the ANC of what is termed in the trade “differential turnout”. Scholtz pointed out that in hotly contested Nelson Mandela Bay, the voting turnout was 68% in the suburbs, compared with 46% in the northern townships. In that difference was the margin of the DA win.

The results for the ANC are pretty dismal. Was it Zuma’s leadership, e-tolls, corruption, infighting, unemployment, Nene, the Guptas or ennui? The party “introspection” promised by Cyril Ramaphosa has plenty of ground to cover. But while it ponders the tea leaves, all parties including the minnows, have to consider coalition options in Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg and some smaller municipalities.

The EFF 10%-plus share of the vote in Johannesburg and Tshwane puts it in a powerful position.

It has clear choices to make and can deliver a governing majority in the two Gauteng metros. Coalition talks began yesterday between it and the DA, and 12 days remain for these to be concluded. Both the EFF and the DA have ruled out a deal with the ANC. The DA and EFF are poles apart, but it is worth exploring whether, despite ideological and constituency incompatibilities, they can create stable and model governments in two major cities. For the EFF it will be a chance to show its governing mettle and delivery capacity and showcase its commitment to forming a non-ANC alternative on the left, as it has promised to do.

For the DA, this is a greater risk: co-governing with the EFF will be hard and compromise will be necessary. But it will, in both Tshwane and Johannesburg, be four times larger than its putative partner. It will need political and financial control (the mayor, plus the finance and corporate services and utilities portfolios). But provided it can hammer out the bare bones of an agreement for an Integrated Development Plan and agree to combat corruption and cadre deployment, it’s worth exploring the possibilities with real intent.

Jacob Zuma, Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema will be busy men these next few days as they ponder Wednesday’s results and their implications. They will not have time to read the 19th century British critic William Hazlitt, who provided one clear explanation for the poll results and a guide for good governance: “The love of liberty is the love of others. The love of power is the love of ourselves.” This time the voters chose liberty — so should the political bosses.

• Leon is a former leader of the opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA