Maki Mandela-Amuah vividly remembers early morning Feb. 2, when she turned on the television in her Amherst, Mass., apartment and saw the hated face of President Frederik W. de Klerk. He had begun his opening-day speech before the South African Parliament, and Maki found herself angrily talking back to the TV. Then De Klerk delivered his thunderbolt. He announced that he was "unbanning" the long-outlawed African National Congress and would soon free its aging leader, Nelson Mandela, who has been imprisoned for the past 27 years. "That's when I yelled," says Maki, who had heard rumors of Mandela's impending release but dared not believe them. "I started running around the house. It's what I've been waiting and wanting to hear."

Although he is a hero to Maki, much as he is to millions of black South Africans who revere him as a living symbol of the struggle against apartheid, Nelson Mandela, 71, is first and foremost her father. But he is also a stranger—a man she has seen only sporadically over the decades of his imprisonment. "I really know [him] very little," Maki, 35, said recently, "and it has been through letter writing and the 45-minute visits in prison. It should be only now that we start establishing that relationship as a father and daughter, if he comes out."

A doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts who arrived here in 1985 on a Fulbright scholarship, Maki lost her father twice: first in 1957 when he divorced her mother, Evelyn Ntoko, a nurse, in order to marry Winnie Nomzamo, a medical school worker; then again in 1962 when he was arrested for sedition (two years later he was given a life sentence for attempting to overthrow the South African government). "My parents divorced when I was around 4," says Maki. "My brother [Makgatho, now 38] and I would visit him every weekend in Soweto. Later, when he went into hiding, I would meet him at secret places, usually friends' houses. It was hard. And I was so young when he was sent to prison. I didn't understand."

Maki remembers yearning for her father to come back to her. "Whenever we got a wishbone," she says, "my friends and I would ask that our daddies would be released. If we saw a fountain, we'd throw coins in it and wish the same thing. I know it sounds childish, but we wanted to feel we had some control of our fate." She pauses. "I have grown to know life is not that simple."

Through the years—as she studied at the University of Fort Hare and did social work in the black homeland of Transkei while her father languished in prison—Maki wrestled with both her longing and her rage. For a long time she was angry at Mandela for deserting her—for the ambition and commitment that had made him sacrifice his family for the sake of the struggle against apartheid. "My understanding took time," says Maki. "It came when I was around 25 and had experienced life. It's still there, the anger and misgivings. I wanted to say to him, 'Why didn't you leave [the country]?' But now I firmly believe my father did what he did because of his love for our people."

Maki has also been distressed by the fact that many people are unaware of both her father's first marriage and of her and her brother. "That hurt," she says, "when people knew only about Winnie's children." Maki will say little about Winnie; it is clear their relationship is strained. But last summer the family—including Winnie, her two daughters by Mandela, Makgatho, and Maki's three children—gathered at the Victor Verster Prison Farm outside Cape Town to celebrate Mandela's birthday. "It was the first time that the whole family was there," says Maki. "It was also the first time my father and I really talked. It felt so good."

Maki—who plans to return to South Africa with her husband, Isaac, 34, and do anthropological research—also feels good about the country's recent movement toward racial rapprochement. But she is wary. "I keep saying to people, 'Stop a bit. Realize that apartheid is still in place with all its tentacles.' " It worries her too that people will expect too much of her father. "There is so much work to be done now in South Africa," she says. "But can this one man called Mandela really do it alone? He is portrayed as a god, and yet he is human—like all of us."

—William Plummer, S. Avery Brown in Amherst