South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party has taken an early lead as vote counting continued in local government elections where it faces the risk of losing control of key cities for the first time since coming to power. The party, which toppled white apartheid rule after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, is up against its stiffest electoral challenge to date amid a backdrop of high unemployment, a stagnant economy and controversies surrounding the president, Jacob Zuma. With a quarter of the votes counted by 3am BST on Thursday, the ANC had 50%, against 34% for the Democratic Alliance (DA) and 6% for the Economic Freedom Fighters, which was participating in only its second election. Opinion polls see a close race in the nation’s capital, Pretoria, and South Africa’s economic hub, Johannesburg. In the early hours of Thursday, the ANC and DA were neck-and-neck at 43% each in Tshwane municipality, which contains Pretoria, although only 15% of the votes had been counted.