President Nelson Mandela, opening the first conference of his African National Congress since it took power, defended the government's initial steps Saturday and urged more work to meet the justified expectations of the country's poor.

In an 85-minute opening address, delivered in a strong, confident voice, the country's first black president made clear he would not be rushed into irresponsible but popular actions that might undermine the economy and harm the ANC's overriding goal to create a better life for all."Ours is not a program of quick handouts; but one for serious and lasting transformation," he declared.

Mandela called for unity among his followers now that the ANC was the governing party and said visible progress toward improving people's lives must begin next year.

The 76-year-old leader's speech in the city where the ANC was founded in 1912 drew enthusiastic cheers and singing from the 2,800 delegates.

Standing underneath a banner saying, "From resistance to reconstruction and nation-building," Mandela called for unity between ANC members in government and those at the grassroots. "We are one ANC, and we should carry out our historic mission as such," he said to loud applause.

The five-day conference was expected to bring out tensions within the country's largest black-led organization, which has gone from being a revolutionary movement to taking control of Africa's richest and most powerful state.

There have been murmurings of discontent since April, when the ANC won South Africa's first all-race election to head the first post-apartheid government.

Some activists complain the black-led government has put too much emphasis on reassuring the 5 million white citizens and not enough on uplifting the country's 35 million black, Asian and mixed-race victims of apartheid.

The ANC's 49th national conference was an opportunity to savor victory and look back at the government's performance as well as to map out strategy and tactics for the years ahead.

Mandela, surrounded on the speaker's platform by former ANC political prisoners who are now government ministers and parliament leaders, underlined that the delegates for the first time were coming to a national conference from positions of power, as well as from humble shop floors and squatter camps.

"We can proudly say to the founders: The country is in the hands of the people; the tree of liberty is firmly rooted in the soil of the motherland," he declared.