SOWETO, South Africa — Nelson R. Mandela, returning Tuesday to a hero's embrace in South Africa's largest black township, told 120,000 cheering supporters jammed into a soccer stadium here that he had often dreamed in prison "of this day when I could come back to my home."
"My return fills my heart with joy," the 71-year-old black nationalist said as he scanned the country's largest political rally in more than three decades. "But I also return with a deep sense of sadness to find that 27 years later, you are still suffering under an inhuman system.
"Our people need proper housing, not ghettos like Soweto," he said. "And they need the right to participate in determining policies that affect their lives."
Activity in the township of 2.5 million came to a halt as tens of thousands arrived, by car, bus and foot, to see and hear the leader whose name has been the rallying cry of black liberation since his imprisonment in 1962. Every aisle and seat in the stadium was filled as Mandela arrived by helicopter, and volunteer marshals struggled to keep at least 10,000 more spectators from entering the dangerously overcrowded stadium.
Ecstatic screams of "Mandela! Mandela!" greeted him as he, his wife, Winnie, and other African National Congress leaders recently freed from prison paraded around the field. Mandela raised his clenched fist in a liberation salute to the stands bathed in the black, green and gold colors of the ANC, and thousands of white as well as black arms shot up to return the greeting.
"When I first saw him, I felt like I was seeing the heavens open up," said Molefe Sekele, a 27-year-old factory worker. "You feel it's the end of our struggle, even though it's not, because we have wanted him out for so long."
The government Tuesday issued its first response to remarks Mandela has made since his Sunday release, saying the freed ANC leader's commitment to the armed struggle was "not helpful" but adding that it was encouraged by Mandela's understanding of the concerns of the white minority and his preference for a peaceful solution to South Africa's problems.
Gerrit Viljoen, the government minister in charge of getting negotiations with the black majority under way, said the government is still prepared to negotiate with the ANC but is not ready "simply to give over power."
Viljoen reiterated that the ruling National Party would probably not be in control of the government in 10 years, but that it would probably still have an important role in national affairs. He noted that President Frederik W. de Klerk has said that last September's general election would be the last one in which blacks would not participate.
Viljoen said he believes there is enough common ground for negotiations between the ANC and the government, but he added that the government is still awaiting a full response from the ANC executive committee to De Klerk recent reform initiatives.
The rally Tuesday was generally peaceful, and police on standby for trouble remained far outside the stadium fences. Mandela was protected by more than two dozen unarmed guards, who scanned the stadium with binoculars.
No incidents of violence were reported, but 32 people were injured when a section of fence ringing the stadium collapsed in the crush of crowds.
In his speech, Mandela criticized the national police force for breaking up "our peaceful marches and demonstrations." But he offered a conciliatory message as well, asking police to "join our march to a new South Africa where you also have a place."
"We note with appreciation that there are certain areas where policemen are acting with restraint and fulfilling the real role of protecting all our people irrespective of race," he said.
Mandela, wearing a blue suit and tie, was introduced by his former co-defendant Walter Sisulu, who turned to his longtime friend and said: "Mr. Mandela, I say to you, the people want to be led by you."
Mandela departed from the purely political remarks of the past two days and used the forum instead to address some of the debilitating problems facing Soweto and other townships that are home to many of the country's 27 million blacks.
He said he was "greatly disturbed" by the high crime rate in Soweto, which records a dozen or more murders on an average weekend.
"Although I understand the deprivations our people suffer, I must make it clear that the level of crime in our township is unhealthy and must be eliminated," Mandela said, drawing cheers from the crowd.
He blamed the education crisis in Soweto, where more than half of the black high school students failed their graduation exams this year, on "apartheid education that is inferior and a crime against humanity."
But he urged Sowetans to continue their struggle against the white-run educational system by pressuring the government to build more schools, train more teachers and "abandon its policy of forcing our children out of the school system through age restrictions and refusing to readmit those who fail their classes."
"All students must return to school and learn," he said.
Mandela also criticized "certain elements who claim to support the liberation struggle (but) use violence against our people."
While Mandela said the ANC "will pursue the armed struggle against the government as long as the violence of apartheid continues," he added that those "armed combatants act under the political leadership of the ANC."
"The hijacking and setting alight of vehicles and the harassment of innocent people are criminal acts and have no place in our struggle," he said.
The message was welcomed in Soweto, where many parents have criticized the ANC for encouraging youngsters to cause trouble in schools.
Times staff writer Julie Cart contributed to this story.