A South African girl, named Sarafina, lives with her aunt and uncle in Soweto where she attends school. Her mother works as a maid in a white household in Johannesburg, and the two rarely see each other. Sarafina battles her feelings of abandonment and disappointment with passionate hero-worship of both imprisoned political activist Nelson Mandela and her rebellious history teacher, Mary Masombuka. Mary encourages the children to be proud of who they are, and aware of the political forces that rule their lives. She even helps the pupils put on a play expressing their desire for the eventual release of Mandela.