JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ The first planeload of exiled African National Congress supporters returned Thursday to South Africa, greeted by hundreds of singing and cheering relatives and friends.

''It is very good to be back,'' said Joel Diamond, 48, thrusting his fists in the air as he entered Jan Smuts International Airport. ''The struggle continues.''

Outside the airport, police at one point used dogs to try to disperse the waiting crowd. One person was arrested and nine were treated for dog bites, the South African Press Association reported.

More than 90 exiles, some who left South Africa decades earlier, arrived on the flight from Lusaka, Zambia, the first of thousands of political exiles expected to return. Journalists on the plane said a dozen people changed their minds at the last minute and stayed behind.

Five more flights carrying about 550 exiles were expected in the next few weeks.

Tens of thousands of people left South Africa illegally the past three decades to avoid prosecution for involvement in the anti-apartheid movement and membership in banned organizations such as the ANC.

President F.W. de Klerk legalized opposition groups in February 1990.

The government agreed in August to permit exiles to return, meeting a key ANC demand for proceeding with negotiations on ending white minority rule. The ANC says as many as 40,000 exiles are eligible to return.

Home Affairs Minister Gene Louw said a total of 5,967 exiles had applied to return to South Africa so far and that 2,874 requests had been processed. No applications were rejected, he said.

The ANC sought a blanket amnesty for exiles, but the government has required any person who committed a crime before fleeing to apply for immunity from prosecution. Those cases were being decided individually.

Tom Sebina, the ANC spokesman in Lusaka, said Wednesday all those on the first flight were ANC members and their dependents.

''Generally there is a feeling of, 'Finally we are now going home,''' he told SAPA.

Sebina, who has been in exile for 25 years, said he was concerned about social problems that await those returning.

Rank-and-file ANC members with no special skills would face the most difficulties finding employment, Sebina said.

But Louw has said exiles would be treated like anyone else when seeking jobs or housing, although he noted that international sanctions and disinvestment by foreign countries opposed to apartheid had hurt the economy.

''As a result, we're sitting with an estimated million or probably 2 million unemployed people. The same figure applies to homeless,'' Louw said.

Sebina said the ANC would try to help exiles, many of whom have children who will need to find space in already-crowded black schools. The independent National Coordinating Committee for Repatriation also would help, but it was unclear if the United Nations would play a role in the repatriation.