Image: South Africans line up to vote.
Naashon Zalk  /  AP
Soweto residents line up to vote Wednesday in South Africa's third democratic election since the end of apartheid.
updated 4/15/2004 5:04:13 AM ET 2004-04-15T09:04:13

Despite lingering poverty and an AIDS crisis, gratitude to the party that toppled apartheid a decade ago appeared to guarantee the African National Congress another victory as results trickled in Thursday in South Africa’s third all-race national elections.

The ANC was leading with just under 66 percent support, compared to just over 17 percent for its nearest rival, the white-led Democratic Alliance, electoral officials said with votes counted in 32 percent of the 16,966 polling stations.

An elderly woman wrapped in the colors of the governing party spoke for ruling party supporters who lined up Wednesday to vote: “The ANC held our hand and brought us through hell,” said Noluthando Nokwando, a 66-year-old grandmother from the poor Cape Town township of Khayelitsha. “We can give them a chance — and our respect — for another five years.”

Reminiscent of 1994 election
Long lines formed outside polling stations around the country as people of all races cast ballots for a 400-member national assembly, which meets next week to select the president. Nine provincial assemblies also were elected and will in turn select delegates to the 90-member National Council of Provinces, parliament’s second chamber.

In scenes reminiscent of the historic 1994 election that ended apartheid, white housewives waited side-by-side with black maids.

The Independent Electoral Commission said voting went smoothly with only a few minor glitches.

“The big day has come,” President Thabo Mbeki said in the capital, Pretoria. “It is now time for the people to speak.”

Voters cheered when Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid legend who became South Africa’s first black president, arrived at a suburban Johannesburg auto club soon after to vote for the third time in his life.

“I feel elated that I can be able to assert my right as a citizen,” the 85-year-old Mandela said, leaning on a cane and smiling.

A tide of change ...
Much has changed in the decade since Mandela was swept to power in the 1994 vote hailed around the world as a miracle.

Successive ANC governments have built 1.6 million houses, brought clean water to 9 million more people and now deliver electricity to 70 percent of South African homes. The once socialist party has revived an ailing economy and lifted the country from diplomatic isolation to take a leading role in African affairs.

Above all, it has presided over a peaceful transition to majority rule that many once thought impossible.

... But many still wait for improvement
Despite continued enthusiasm for voting, many grumbled they are still waiting to see the benefits of black rule.

While a small black elite is changing the face of South African suburbs and boardrooms, millions of others remain trapped in cluttered townships and isolated villages, many of them without electricity or running water.

Unemployment of more than 30 percent has hit poorly educated blacks hard, and the gap between rich and poor is increasing.

“Each and everything they promised us is not materializing,” said a discouraged Raphael Mohlala, 22, who had no idea which party he would vote for as he waited behind Bethlehem in a line of more than 200 people. “This country is going to the dogs.”

The AIDS dilemma
An estimated 5.3 million South Africans are infected with HIV, more than in any other country. That worries Patty Patience, 64, who voted ANC for the third time at a school in the sprawling Soweto township.

“If they don’t do better in the next five years, I might change my mind,” she said.

Opponents led by the Democratic Alliance accuse Mbeki and the ANC of mishandling the AIDS crisis, neglecting to crack down on corruption and crime, and failing to create jobs.

But with most of South Africa’s 79 percent blacks behind the ANC, it appears within reach of the two-thirds majority Mbeki seeks. In 1999, the ANC was just shy of the margin, which would give the party power to amend the constitution.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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