The novel begins in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1974 during apartheid. Rosa is 26, and her father, Lionel Burger, a white Afrikaner anti-apartheid activist, has died in prison after serving three years of a life sentence for treason. When she was 14, her mother, Cathy Burger, also died in prison. Rosa had grown up in a family that actively supported the overthrow of the apartheid government, and the house they lived in opened its doors to anyone supporting the struggle, regardless of colour. Living with them was "Baasie" (little boss), a black boy Rosa's age the Burgers had "adopted" when his father had died in prison. Baasie and Rosa grew up as brother and sister. Rosa's parents were members of the outlawed South African Communist Party (SACP), and had been arrested several times when she was a child. When Rosa was nine, she was sent to stay with her father's family; Baasie was sent elsewhere, and she lost contact with him.
With the Burger's house now empty, Rosa sells it and moves in with Conrad, a student who had befriended her during her father's trial. Conrad questions her about her role in the Burger family and asks why she always did what she was told. Later Rosa leaves Conrad and moves into a flat on her own and works as a physiotherapist. In 1975 Rosa attends a party of a friend in Soweto, and it is there that she hears a black university student dismissing all whites' help as irrelevant, saying that whites cannot know what blacks want, and that blacks will liberate themselves. Despite being labelled a Communist and under surveillance by the authorities, Rosa manages to get a passport, and flies to Nice in France to spend several months with Katya, her father's first wife. There she meets Bernard Chabalier, a visiting academic from Paris. They become lovers and he persuades her to return with him to Paris.
Before joining Bernard in Paris, Rosa stays in a flat in London for several weeks. Now that she has no intention of honouring the agreement of her passport, which was to return to South Africa within a year, she openly introduces herself as Burger's daughter. This attracts the attention of the media and she attends several political events. At one such event, Rosa sees Baasie, but when she tries to talk to him, he starts criticising her for not knowing his real name (Zwelinzima Vulindlela). He says that there is nothing special about her father having died in prison as many black fathers have also died there, and adds that he does not need her help. Rosa is devastated by her childhood friend's hurtful remarks, and overcome with guilt, she abandons her plans of going into exile in France and returns to South Africa.
Back home she resumes her job as a physiotherapist in Soweto. Then in June 1976 Soweto school children start protesting about their inferior education and being taught in Afrikaans. They go on a rampage, which includes killing white welfare workers. The police brutally put down the uprising, resulting in hundreds of deaths. In October 1977, many organisations and people critical of the white government are banned, and in November 1977 Rosa Burger is detained. Her lawyer, who also represented her father, expects charges to be brought against her of furthering the aims of the banned SACP and African National Congress (ANC), and of aiding and abetting the students' revolt.