PRETORIA (AFP) - South Africas ruling African National Congress on Thursday claimed a strong mandate in general elections set to hand its popular but controversial leader Jacob Zuma the presidency. With early returns giving the ANC a 65 percent lead, the party announced that it would block off downtown Johannesburg streets around its offices for Zuma to address his supporters in the evening to celebrate victory. The ANC invites fellow South Africans to attend this celebration to share the joy of having achieved a strong mandate to consolidate the gains made during the past 15 years, it said in a statement. The ANC thanks millions of South Africans for casting their vote, giving the ANC a renewed mandate to deliver on key priorities outlined in the election manifesto. The final tally was still hours away, but the ANC held a commanding lead over its near rivals, as voters apparently overcame doubts about Zumas integrity stemming from corruption charges dropped just two weeks ago. The threat posed by a breakaway group, the Congress of the People (COPE), appeared to have fizzled, with the splinter party formed by supporters of former president and Zuma rival Thabo Mbeki taking about eight percent. The main opposition Democratic Alliance was at about 18 percent. The ANC was also leading the ballots cast in nine provinces, though it was trailing the Democratic Alliance in the Western Cape, where Cape Town is located. The main question now was whether the ANC would win another two-thirds majority, which allows the party to change the constitution at will. The debate was always whether the ANC was going to get two thirds or fall below the two thirds threshold. They were always going to win, analyst Ebrahim Fakir of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa told AFP. At this stage the race for second and third, which is what really I think everyone was really watching over the past two days, is far from settled, Fakir said, adding that COPEs performance had been less than expected. A record 23 million people registered to vote at nearly 20,000 polling stations with turnout so heavy that authorities reported ballot shortages and overflowing boxes. The long lines of voters recalled images of South Africas first democratic elections in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president following the end of apartheid. Despite the public enthusiasm for the polls, with turnout initially estimated at 77 percent, The Star newspaper cautioned that South Africa faced immense challenges made more difficult in the global economic crisis. Millions of our citizens remain mired in poverty, our health services are inequitable and our education system is a national tragedy, it said. We have heard the campaign talk now we want a new patriotism and action. Despite an otherwise peaceful poll, a COPE party official in the Eastern Cape was shot dead by three armed men in an attack on his home. Zuma has campaigned on a pro-poor ticket with promises of improved public services, but will enter office as South Africa slides toward recession. Despite the gains since apartheid, public frustrations are growing with unemployment estimated at 40 percent, a staggering crime rate, and the worlds largest caseload of people with AIDS. The son of a housekeeper, Zuma was a stalwart of the struggle against white minority rule, and spent a decade jailed alongside Mandela on Robben Island. He became deputy to former president Mbeki, but the two developed a fierce rivalry, and Mbeki sacked him in 2005. Zuma seized the leadership of the ANC away from Mbeki in 2007, and the party took less than a year to dismiss Mbeki as president.