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President Nelson Mandela returned Saturday to a crime-ridden township where he lived 54 years ago and urged residents to forge a strong new community with a wealthy white suburb nearby.

Mandela spoke to a nearly all-black crowd of 15,000 in the first of many speeches he will give to help his African National Congress in local and regional elections Nov. 1.If the ANC has its way and redraws the electoral district boundaries, voters will elect a single council for Alexandra, a township crowded with windowless tin shacks, and Sandton, Johannesburg's biggest and wealthiest suburb.

"This meeting is important since it brings together neighbors who have been living quite separately for too long," Mandela said. "The local government elections will ensure that these communities are forged together to form a strong and vibrant community."

Alexandra was a symbolic choice to pioneer the transformation Mandela has hoped to bring South Africa since the ANC won historic all-race national elections last year to end white minority rule.

A hotbed of resistance to apartheid since the 1950s, Alexandra's estimated 300,000 people are crammed into 11/2 square miles of shacks, most without electricity or flush toilets.

Next door lies Sandton, where many of the rare Alexandrans who are not unemployed work as gardeners or domestic workers. They return home at night to pitch-black streets made dangerous by the gunfire of gangs.

Demographics all but guarantee that the ANC will win the redistricting, meaning that for the first time some of Sandton's wealth and services will shift to Alexandra. Water, sewage and garbage collection could be some of the first to improve.

"People need so much in this area," said Sandton contractor Richard Cheary, 48, one of the few whites at the rally. "It has to be one people, one country."

Mandela urged Alexandrans to unite in the way he remembered them doing in 1941, when he moved to the township from his native village, found work as a mine guard and joined the ANC Youth League.

Back then, he said, tribal origins made no difference - all were Alexandrans.