JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Oliver Tambo, the major force behind South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle during the three decades Nelson Mandela was in jail, returned to South Africa yesterday amid cheers, chants and songs.
Looking frail but triumphant, Mr. Tambo, 73, stood beaming on a balcony at Jan Smuts Airport and gave the raised-fist salute of the African National Congress to more than 5,000 followers and fans.
The ANC president, who suffered a massive stroke last year, returned home after 30 years in exile to officiate at the ANC's first national conference inside the country since it was banned in 1960.
He said nothing to the expectant crowd, who had waited in searing heat for hours. Instead, Mr. Mandela, the ANC's deputy president, introduced his longtime colleague and spoke on his behalf, saying Mr. Tambo was thrilled to be home.
"We welcome him with open arms as one of the greatest leaders of Africa," said Mr. Mandela, who was accompanied on the airport balcony by his wife, Winnie; by Mr. Tambo's family; and by other senior ANC leaders, such as Communist Party chief Joe Slovo and ANC senior official Walter Sisulu.
An ANC spokesman said the group made the decision that Mr. Tambo's first public address should be today at the ANC conference, which is expected to sort out the organization's position on negotiations with the government and its approach to the factional violence that has left more than 1,000 blacks dead this year.
Patrick Lekota, a senior organizer and spokesman, said Mr. Tambo "has been at the very head and center of a struggle that is shaping South Africa's history now. . . . It is to the credit of the ANC and of himself that South Africa has at last found herself negotiating a settlement to the problems of the country."
Others familiar with the ANC's history said Mr. Tambo was the person responsible for building the organization into the most influential anti-apartheid force inside the country and one that is known and respected around the world.
"This is the man we've been waiting for," said Borence Moabi, 44, an ANC supporter and Johannesburg city employee who waited with the singing and dancing crowd. "This is the man who kept the fires of the ANC burning throughout the world while it was being extinguished in South Africa."
Since the ANC was unbanned Feb. 2, it has been the major player among black political groups involved in negotiations with the government aimed at ending the apartheid system of racial discrimination.
But the organization has faced the multiple challenges of negotiating with the white government, solidifying its support after decades of exile, organizing itself into a political party after years as a revolutionary movement and working out its relationship with rival black groups.
"The ANC for years was alone on the field," said Raymond Mhlaba, a senior member of the ANC executive committee and " chairman of the South African Communist Party.
"We have to study [the new groups] and form alliances with those that are progressive enough and can work with us," he said.
It was unclear whether Mr. Tambo would continue to play an active leadership role. He has spent the past year recovering from his stroke.
ANC leaders insisted, however, that he will remain a significant player in South African politics.