JOHANNESBURG, FEB. 9 -- One year following his release after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela's message to his millions of admirers at home and abroad is to stop thinking of him as a messiah who can lead his people to freedom overnight.

Other than the excessive adulation, Mandela seems to have weathered remarkably well the strains of black political leadership and worldwide celebrity. In exceptional physical condition for his 72 years, he remains as quick of mind, wit and word as ever.

Above all, Mandela comes across as a man sure of his historic mission to bring peace to this racially torn land and pleased with his close relationship with President Frederik W. de Klerk, now widely viewed as the keystone to settling peacefully the burning conflict.

But Mandela also seems acutely aware that high expectations and smoldering discontent among blacks could derail the peace process if allowed free rein.

His biggest surprise upon coming out of prison Feb. 11 of last year, he said, was to find that the level of political consciousness and militancy among his people was "very high indeed," while he was "impressed and even frightened" by how far women's emancipation had gone.

At a nearly two-hour news conference Friday, the African National Congress leader reflected at length on how he felt after a year in freedom, and pleaded for understanding that he is not superhuman.

"If people regarded me as the messiah who was now overnight going to solve the problems of South Africa, then they are living in a fool's paradise," he said. "No human being could do that. Not even Christ succeeded in doing that, and I am far from being a Christ."

He said he had been "very shocked" by the extent to which housing, unemployment, health and other sevices for blacks had deteriorated since he went to prison but pleased to find that "quite a number" of employers were actively helping their workers with housing, training, loans and scholarships for their children.

Mandela's first year of freedom was not an easy one. South Africa experienced its worst political violence in recent history, with more than 3,000 people killed either in clashes with security forces or in fighting among blacks in townships.

The removal last year of the ban on groups opposing the apartheid system of racial separation triggered an explosion of pent-up discontent and political energy among blacks . In the midst of this upheaval, Mandela discovered the limits of his authority over restless black youths, who rejected his pleas to "throw your pangas {machetes} into the sea" and return to school.

Even within his own ANC -- an association of conflicting generations, ideologies, factions and personalities -- he had problems asserting his authority. It took him nearly a year to overcome grass-roots opposition to his holding a "peace summit" with the ANC's chief black rival, Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

But Mandela has brought about considerable change in ANC tactics in dealing with its political black rivals and enemies, seeking reconciliation and common ground now rather than head-on confrontation.

At times during his press conference, Mandela sounded surprisingly tough. He threatened to unleash "mass action" that would cause "this country to be turned upside down" if the United States and European Community lifted any of their sanctions and said the ANC will refuse to hold a third "summit" with the government until it releases all political prisoners and allows exiles to return.

As for any "power-sharing" -- the current buzzword among de Klerk's constitutional experts -- with whites, Mandela said it would depend on whether they would accept the outcome of direct elections. If so, then "whether you are talking now about the sharing of power or the transfer of power becomes irrelevant."

But earlier he said he had "no doubt" about the need to find a compromise between South Africa's 33 million blacks and 5 million whites, whose fears of one-person, one-vote elections were "genuine."

"It's the duty of the liberation movement to address genuinely and with sympathy the fears of the whites," he said, adding that he thought this could be done "without tampering with one-person, one-vote." He suggested that a strong constitution with a bill of rights was the answer and assured whites that "every population group will have a right to its language, its own schools, its own culture, its own religion."

But Mandela said that after being released from prison he was surprised at how many whites identified with the anti-apartheid movement. He said he had been "almost shocked off my feet" when he saw whites greeting him as he rode from his Paarl prison into Cape Town on the day of his release.

Mandela said he was pleasantly surprised by his dealings with de Klerk, whom he found to be "an honest person, a very capable and stern leader" and a "man of integrity," despite the criticism of ANC militants about his use of such words to describe the president.

"I think the accord that was established made it possible for us to . . . solve highly sensitive matters and . . . chart our way forward," he said.

But he also said de Klerk had made "many mistakes" and that there had been many occasions when "I expected action from him and we didn't get him to act," particularly in getting security forces to curb township violence.

Summing up where the ANC stands a year after his release, Mandela said "very serious problems" remain. "It needs a great deal of patience, a great deal of trust in your opponents" even while "you reserve all your guns, all your ammunition," he said, adding that if peace efforts failed, the ANC would resort to "power" to achieve its goals.

But he said he hoped that the situation would never reach the point where "the only road open to us is that of violence" and he remained, he said, "very optimistic about the future."