The novel revolves around the life of the young revolutionary Rosa Burger as she struggles through the tumultuous apartheid years in Johannesburg, South Africa. Rosa is the daughter of Lionel and Cathy Burger, white Afrikaner anti-apartheid protesters. Both were imprisoned for their beliefs and had died in prison while serving out life sentences for treason. Despite the obvious danger to themselves Rosa’s surviving family members continued to uphold their convictions and enthusiastically championed the downfall of the apartheid government and anyone else who supported the cause, heedless of race. Rosa had grown up with a black boy, whom they affectionately dub “Baasie”--Afrikaans for “little boss.” Baasie’s own father had died in prison and the sympathetic Burgers took him in. The pair grows up regarding each other as brother and sister but because of her parents’ ties with the SACP or the South African Communist Party they are soon parted, Rosa being sent to live with her father’s family and Baasie somewhere unspecified. The two lose track of each other shortly after that.
Rosa grows up without losing her activist tendencies. She eventually ends up selling the Burger house, which has been empty for some time now, and moves in with a student, Conrad, whom she had met at her father’s trial. Conrad obliquely accuses her of being a mere puppet, a yes man in the Burger family, doing only what she was commanded rather than out of a concrete believe in the cause her parents upheld. Understandably, this friction eventually causes Conrad and Rosa to part ways; she moves out to work as a physiotherapist.
Meanwhile, racial and social unrest continue to wrack the nation. While attending a friend’s party in Soweto she hears the inflammatory speeches of a black university student activist denouncing the efforts of white anti-apartheid campaigners as being completely futile. In his public tirade the activist stresses that whites are inherently incapable of understanding the difficulties and struggles the black man goes through and because of that incapable of knowing what black people want; as such black people must take the initiative to free themselves.
Rosa manages to secure travel documents and flies to Nice, France, despite her status as a subversive on her government’s watch list. While in Nice, she reconnects with Katya, her father’s wife from a previous marriage. Living with Katya she meets a visiting scholar from Paris, Bernard Chabalier, who becomes her lover. After some coaxing from Bernard, Rosa eventually agrees to come away with him to Paris.
Prior to her departure the South African government had issued a number of conditions on her passport, one of them being that she must return to South Africa within a year. Her romantic entanglement with Bernard however emboldens her to violate her travel ban and introduce herself as Lionel Burger’s daughter, attracting considerable media attention not to mention the notice of a number of political pundits and events. In one of these political events Rosa is reunited with Baasie. Their reunion however is less than cordial despite their shared childhood. When the initiates a conversation with him he begins to condemn her for not even knowing his birth name, going as far as to insult Rosa for her father’s death in prison stating that many more black fathers have died for the very same cause that Lionel was fighting for and yet they died in obscurity. The killing blow though is when Baasie declares that he does not need or want Rosa’s help. Devastated by these cutting statements and overwhelmed with remorse she decides to return and rejoin the struggle in South Africa.
Rosa returns to Soweto continuing her work as a physiotherapist. Shortly after her return school children in Soweto begin opposing to the substandard education that they are receiving and that their lessons are taught in Afrikaans instead of their native language. The outrage eventually reaches boiling point and the students begin rioting, killing white welfare workers in the process. Hundreds die as the uprisings are violently quelled by the police and in the following year several anti-government organizations and individuals are banned from participating in government, and Rosa Burger is incarcerated. Her defense attorney, who also represented the elder Burger, presumes that accusations of sedition as well as participating in the student riots will be leveled against her client.