JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- An elderly woman wrapped in the colors of the governing African National Congress spoke for millions who lined up Wednesday to vote in South Africa's third all-race national election. "The ANC held our hand and brought us through hell," said Noluthando Nokwando, a 66-year-old woman from the squalid Cape Town township of Khayelitsha. "We can give them a chance -- and our respect -- for another five years." Despite lingering poverty, high unemployment and an AIDS crisis, a debt of gratitude to the party that toppled apartheid a decade ago still holds sway in South Africa. The ANC has improved living conditions and the economy, but above all, it has presided over a peaceful transition to majority rule that many once thought impossible.
"This is what people died for, so we could achieve this day," said Marlene Bethlehem, a 63-year-old woman waiting to vote in a predominantly white Johannesburg suburb. "The miracle has happened -- without the bloodshed that the world predicted."
Long, snaking lines formed outside polling stations around the country, as people of all races voted together for a 400-member national assembly, which meets next week to select the president. Nine provincial assemblies also were being elected.
The Independent Electoral Commission said voting went smoothly with only a few minor glitches. Vote counting began after polls closed, with some stations staying open late to accommodate people waiting to vote.
In scenes reminiscent of the historic 1994 vote that ended apartheid, white women stood side-by-side with black maids, some carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun or thermoses of hot tea.
President Thabo Mbeki was one of the first to vote for the parliament and provincial assemblies. He handed over his identity book and got his hand stamped with purple ink meant to keep people from casting ballots twice.
"The big day has come," he said, relaxed and smiling at a booth set up in a park in the capital, Pretoria. "It is now time for the people to speak."
Voters cheered when Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon 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 broadly.
Much has changed in the decade since Mandela was swept to power in the 1994 vote hailed around the world as a miracle.
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.
The ordinariness of the election shows just how far the country has come, said Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop who presided over a landmark Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed at healing the wounds of South Africa's violent past.
"We are getting to be experts at this," Tutu said after voting at a Cape Town library. "It is often said that the first election after freedom is the last one, because most countries degenerate into dictatorships. We are disproving that."
Despite the enthusiasm for voting -- a right denied all but the 10 percent white minority during most of the apartheid era -- many grumbled that 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 that lack 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 Raphael Mohlala, 22, who had no idea which party he would vote for as he waited behind Bethlehem in a winding line of more than 200 people. "This country is going to the dogs."
An estimated 5.3 million South Africans are infected with HIV, more than in any other country. That worried Patty Patience, 64, who voted for the ANC for the third time at a school in the sprawling township of Soweto.
"If they don't do better in the next five years, I might change my mind," she said.
Opponents led by the Democratic Alliance, which is expected to finish a distant second, accuse Mbeki and the ANC of mishandling the country's AIDS crisis, neglecting to crack down on corruption and crime, and failing to create jobs.
But with most of South Africa's blacks -- 79 percent of the population -- supporting the ANC, the party 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.
The Alliance argues no party should have that much power. But South Africa's last white leader praised the ANC's willingness to work with rivals like the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party and his own New National Party.
"We need to take hands across all divides and work together to resolve our big problems," said former President F.W. de Klerk, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, "and to accept our exciting challenges in South Africa for some time to come."