PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA, NOV. 6 -- Former African National Congress leader Govan Mbeki, freed after 23 years in prison for treason, joined in emotional prayers of thanksgiving today as he was reunited with his wife for the first time in six years.

Mbeki, 77, later flew to Johannesburg, where he plans to hold a news conference Saturday in defiance of government warnings that as a "listed" member of the South African Communist Party, he may not be quoted in the domestic press.

{Police with dogs, whips and clubs attacked black youths at Johannesburg airport as they waited to greet Mbeki, United Press International reported. It said about 20 police confronted a peaceful demonstration of about 500 black and white supporters at the airport while another 100 policemen waited outside.

{One youth was kicked and beaten after being attacked by police dogs. Mbeki appeared to be stunned by the violence, UPI reported.}

Mbeki's wife, Epainette, 71, was flown to this eastern Cape Province city from her home in the black tribal homeland of Transkei for a reunion with her husband in his motel room.

Later, the couple attended a poolside prayer service surrounded by scores of reporters and photographers. Mbeki's release has raised expectations that other prominent ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, may soon be released.

"We look forward to the day that those in Pollsmoor Prison -- the leaders of our country -- will all come home," said the Rev. Devilliers Sogot. "We thank God for your safekeeping of him . . . so that he can continue the struggle for the liberation of our country."

Mbeki said last night that he would remain active in the battle against white minority rule in South Africa and would continue as a member of the outlawed Communist Party.

Contrary to expectations, Mbeki did not visit Port Elizabeth's black township of New Brighton, where he has a home. He also did not speak with reporters today, but spent the day receiving friends and well-wishers in his motel room.

Sources close to Mbeki said that he had come under intense pressure from government officials not to visit the township in order to avoid demonstrations that could have led to violence. Mbeki, accompanied by an official of South Africa's Prison Services and guarded by several plainclothes security officers, insisted that he had accepted no conditions on his release.

New Brighton, a sprawling township of matchbox-like houses and flimsy shanties, appeared almost not to notice the release of its best-known resident. There were no visible signs of celebration, and a number of blacks interviewed randomly appeared to be ambivalent about Mbeki's release.

"There's no sense of him coming out. The poison is still in the pot. If the poison comes out of the pot, then they {political prisoners} can be released," said one New Brighton resident, Orapeleng Mosia, a self-employed contractor.

Mosia, who said he had served five years in Robben Island Prison with Mbeki for belonging to the outlawed Pan Africanist Congress, added, "Once you have been arrested as a leader of the struggle, you belong to the people. You must suffer for the nation and you must sacrifice for the nation until the struggle is won."

Other New Brighton residents called Mbeki a "hero" and noted that in an hour-long meeting yesterday with Mandela at Pollsmoor Prison, Mandela, who is regarded by most South African blacks as their national leader, urged Mbeki to accept parole of his life sentence.

Mandela, Mbeki and Sisulu were among seven blacks convicted of sabotage and treason on June 11, 1964, by the Supreme Court in Pretoria. Mbeki is the first of the blacks to be released. A white defendant, Dennis T. Goldberg, was freed in 1985.