Voters turned out by the millions Wednesday for South Africa's second all-races election, some assembling quietly before daybreak and others waiting patiently well into the night to decide a contest that has focused more on this nation's livability than its liberation.

With apartheid squarely in the past and the retirement of President Nelson Mandela at hand, South Africans at polling places said they have turned their attention from the symbolic struggle between tyranny and freedom that defined the country's election in 1994 to the nuts and bolts issues of governing their five-year-old democracy.

As expected, Mandela's African National Congress appeared headed for an easy victory, outdistancing the nine other political parties on the ballot by a wide margin and retaining a majority of the 400 seats in Parliament. With 39 percent of the voting districts reporting early today, the ANC had 57 percent of the vote. The predominantly white, centrist Democratic Party had 14 percent, and the party that founded apartheid, the New National Party, had about 12 percent.

The ANC's victory clears the way for lawmakers to name the ANC party leader, Thabo Mbeki, the country's second freely elected president. He will replace the 80-year-old Mandela, the former political prisoner who came to embody South Africa's new democracy in its first five years. As Mandela's protege and chosen successor, Mbeki has served as deputy president since 1994 and has handled the day-to-day operation of the government for much of Mandela's term.

While the number of voters who turned out Wednesday seemed to rival the huge turnout in 1994, when nearly 90 percent of all South African adults cast ballots, the euphoria, competing passions and violence of that election have dissipated. Instead, the country's fragmented electorate has shown itself to be largely peaceful and pragmatic, widely embracing a future in which the black majority and white minority are joined politically and economically -- if uncomfortably.

In sharp contrast with the days leading up to 1994, when street fighting and bomb explosions were orchestrated both by right-wing white groups and by rival factions of blacks, authorities Wednesday reported only sporadic incidents of politically motivated violence. And across the nation Wednesday, well-to-do white women arrived at suburban voting booths with their black maids. Hundreds of voters waited for hours in a dusty schoolyard. Gray-haired black men trembled in the cold of a winter dawn, restless young men set aside their cynicism, and young women bundled up their hope and their babies to try to resolve the central question facing the new South Africa: How does this fledgling democracy house, employ and protect all 40 million of its citizens after catering only to whites for so long?

"I hope to see an improvement in the housing stock," said 25-year-old Goodman Ndzuling, as he prepared to vote in the former black township of Soweto. "Five years ago, we voted to slay the dragon, but now people want to see a real improvement in their lives."

Ndzuling said that he would not vote for the ANC, though he would not disclose his preference from among the other nine political parties on the ballot. Despite signs of growing disillusionment with the ANC's ability to provide jobs and housing to the poor, the overwhelming number of South African blacks still solidly support the party. The only suspense surrounding the election has been whether any of the challengers will emerge as a viable opposition party and whether the ANC will capture two-thirds of the vote -- which would enable the party to single-handedly amend the constitution, a prospect that has fueled fears that South Africa could become just another African nation abused by a dominant one-party government.

But those are peripheral issues in a South Africa that is growing increasingly anxious about its future. While the ANC's fiscally austere economic strategies have won praise from international bankers, new investment has been slow to come, and the contracting economy has not opened up to the millions of blacks entering a job market that was formerly off limits to them. Unemployment among blacks here is nearly 40 percent.

"We think this time there will be change after the elections," said Miriam Mtshali, while waiting to vote outside a school in Soweto. "We're poor, and we want to work."

Political parties from both the right and left of the political spectrum have made campaign issues of the ANC's track record. Blacks, particularly those in poor, rural areas, openly express frustration with the ANC's failure so far to make good on its promise to build 1 million new homes. The government has started construction on roughly 600,000.

And predominantly white opposition parties such as the Democratic Party and the New National Party have tapped into whites' resentment of the ANC's affirmative action policies, arguing that government jobs and contracts should be conferred solely on the basis of merit, not race. "There is a sense among whites here," said Rolf de Wit, a white voter waiting in line to vote in a Johannesburg suburb, "that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction."

But more than any other issue, crime has been at the center of this campaign season in South Africa. With an average of 70 killings a day, South Africa is one of the most dangerous places in the world. The ANC's opponents have tried to portray the party, which abolished the death penalty, as soft on crime.

The Democratic Party's slogan is "The guts to fight back," while posters for another party declare flatly: "Kill all rapists and murderers."

"You cannot go to a dinner party these days and find someone who hasn't been robbed or hijacked," said Sheila Camerer, a member of Parliament. "We're all so scared we've put these big teeth up around our homes," she said, referring to the proliferation of security gates that encircle many suburban homes.

Despite those issues, however, polls show that nearly 70 percent of all South Africans remain optimistic about their nation's future, and slightly less approve of the ANC's performance since the 1994 election. Whatever their political tastes, voters here are anything but indifferent. Mandela declared Wednesday a national holiday, and most restaurants, shops and offices either closed early or didn't open at all. Voters arrived at polling places in some instances three hours before they opened, and despite waits of more than two hours, few left without casting a ballot.

"I think there are even more people out this time than in '94," said Willie Magkoopa of Soweto. "People are still confident that things are getting better. It's been slow, but most people realize that it's going to take more than five years to turn this around."

CAPTION: Millions of S. Africans Vote: Voters of different races await their turn in Paarl. As the racial struggle recedes into South Africa's past, voters have turned their attention to economic issues. (Photo ran on page A01)

CAPTION: A long line of voters moves along a Cape Town street. In South Africa's second all-races election, voters chose national and provincial legislators.

CAPTION: The line at the polling station winds across a field in Alexandra township north of Johannesburg.