TSELANE TAMBO is learning to cope with life in South Africa. But the daughter of Oliver Tambo, the black liberation movement's guiding light who died last week, often feels far from home. Tselane, a 30-year-old actress, spent her first 29 years thinking of herself as a South African living in England; now she is a Londoner living in Johannesburg.

Her first taste of 'home' came in December 1990, when she accompanied her father, then president of the African National Congress, back to South Africa for his first visit in more than 30 years. Oliver Tambo was loved as patron saint and crowned head of the liberation movement.

'The trip was so unnatural for me, I equated it with when Princess Diana first joined the Royal Family,' Tselane says. 'All of a sudden I couldn't just stroll down to the corner shop. I'm thinking, 'well why not, it's only me', and they say 'you could be in danger'.'

That first visit was dominated, says Tselane, by petty restrictions. 'It was all stupid little stuff that stuck with me when I got on the plane back to London. I thought 'I can live without this, what about the freedom to be who you are?' That is, of course, the freedom denied to most of its citizens by South Africa's government.

'It was only much later that I managed to put that aside and look at what was really important: that this is my country, this is where I'm from, it houses all my heritage - and it seems to be the one place on earth that I've been to that I just cannot relate to.'

Tselane grew up in London with her mother, Adelaide, a sister and a brother. Her father was away a great deal, keeping the ANC flame alive at a time when most of its other leaders were in jail. In spite of her political roots, her life was typically middle class; nice house in Muswell Hill, north London, boarding school, then, as an adult, the move to a flat in Brixton.

'I still feel very English,' she says. 'If I ever tell someone to get stuffed, they immediately ask 'where are you from?' That's because I couldn't possibly be from here, they know our local blacks wouldn't do that.

'On one of the first days I was driving around with my sister and we nearly had a crash. We got out of the car, so did the other woman, and she started screaming at us. Eventually we said, 'Oh, shut up', and she said, 'Who do you think you are, have you seen the colour of your skin?' And we said: 'Oh shit, this really is South Africa'. And then we just laughed and started shouting: 'We're black, we're black and we're beautiful'.'

In a system that classifies its people according to colour, few seem to know who they really are. 'An English woman said to me, 'But you're not really black', and I wondered what being black means to her; it probably means being a domestic - she thinks I'm a brown-skinned white.' And that was probably meant as a compliment.

Being a Tambo complicates the issue even further. Sitting in Steffanies, a cafe in Hyde Park shopping mall patronised by Johannesburg's beautiful people, Tselane remembers an earlier visit with her brother, Dali. He was buying cigarettes, she was waiting alone. 'I saw this white woman giving me the most evil look, really staring at me, like 'who do you think you are coming here?' And I'm watching her staring at me and thinking: 'God, this must be really tough to swallow, here in your little white neighbourhood is a black woman'.

'Eventually my brother came back, and we turned away. And then she came over and said: 'Hello, Dali, how are you? Oh, your sister, how lovely to meet you . . . '

'I was amazed. I had to scrape my jaw up off the ground. And I thought, 'she thinks I am just some ugly nigger sitting in her spot', but then it turns out I am a Tambo. So I'm welcome.'

In a country where blacks are assumed to be urban working-class or rural peasants, the appearance of a well-spoken, well-educated black woman who lives in a large and beautiful house in Johannesburg's lily- white northern suburbs is confusing - and not just to whites. Tselane has little in common with most black South Africans, not least because she doesn't speak an African language.

She gets angry 'about every sixth time' that whites treat her badly, but adds: 'I'm just getting a little taste of petty racism. Most black people have had to deal with racism that is not petty at all, that is life-threatening.'

Her first job in South Africa is playing the eponymous pussycat in The Earl and the Pussycat, a Whitehall farce in which the Earl's son-in-law, an MP, gets caught with a black prostitute - played by Tselane, who is the only black person visible in the theatre. The audience was weeping with laughter.

'I find it really bizarre that the first play I do when I get to South Africa requires a cockney accent. I often feel that I'm in a small town near Brighton and we're the local dramatic society,' she says. 'As long as you give them a good time people enjoy it. Even those who have seen a lot of the political stuff would find it a relief to have a good laugh.'

Her next project could hardly be more different. Tselane hopes to stage For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf at the Grahamstown Festival (the local equivalent of Edinburgh) this summer. 'It's a choreopoem, set in America, about seven women's struggle to find themselves. The play has never been performed in South Africa because the playwright refused to allow it, but I managed to persuade her that the time had come.'

On her first visit Tselane felt no real connection to the land or its people. 'We went to visit some family in Sharpeville; they live just down the road from where the massacre was. They had a big ceremony, and slaughtered two sheep . . . and then they cooked. I felt 'Ugh]' But I was learning about the grass-roots traditions.'

Then the family made a pilgrimage to Oliver Tambo's birthplace in the Transkei. 'We drove and drove and drove and every road we turned off was smaller than the last until there was no road at all. And there was this convoy of cars stretching back as far as the eye could see and it was very dramatic; we came to the crest of a hill and stopped and in the middle of nowhere stood these three rondavels, and hundreds of people. It was very beautiful, the light was stunning. Whole communities came, and that was very moving.

'I felt curious, but I didn't feel my ancestors in the air - and I'm usually very sensitive to vibes.'

One sign truly sets Tselane apart from her compatriots - her interest in astrology, which is almost unheard of in black South Africa. But she 'desperately wants' to consult a sangoma, or witch-doctor. 'My problem is finding someone to take me. You have to go up the mountain and they make spells on you; sometimes they brand you - I don't want to go to one of them. Some are charlatans, some are for real. Some people have said they'd take me, but I think my mother got to them. She's dismissive, but that just makes me think she's scared of it.'

Although Tselane 'desperately' wants to tap into the African soul, she finds it hard to connect with the body. 'Most of my friends here are foreign. Some are black, but they're not South African, or are South Africans who have lived abroad and have just come back. But the indigenous South Africans who have lived here all the time - I don't really have a point of contact with them because I'm so incredibly English.'

Tselane also finds the relationships between men and women difficult; she feels that women compete over men, and that 'it's as if the result of any relationship with a man has got to be sex. But when it comes down to living, women give men status over themselves. Men have affairs and the women accept it. But if a woman has an affair, her partner beats her up. I don't think I will find love here, but if I do find it, it won't be with a South African man,' she says adamantly.

'I'm living in a very Eurocentric world - this is the South Africa that I've come to, and the other South Africa, the black South Africa, is in the townships. I'm afraid of going to the townships, not because I think anything is going to happen but because everyone else is frightened. There is so much fear here. It's so much part of the communal consciousness that you absorb it anyway.'

Tselane is right: the atmosphere of fear in Johannesburg is palpable; fear of the tidal wave of violence, of the crime wave that still injures far more blacks than whites, but which whites seem to use as a catalyst for other, darker fears that they feel unable to express.

'The other side of the coin is that South Africa is such a beautiful country. Parts of it are just stunning, breathtaking. It's a tragedy that there isn't more harmony. The landscape deserves harmony.

'The black South African culture is a very beautiful, giving culture; you serve in order to receive; your gift is your reward and that is a beautiful thing. Sometimes I think that's why apartheid happened, if it were less beautiful, this wouldn't have been allowed to happen.'

Her sentiments certainly apply to her late father and those with whom he built the ANC - a non-racial organisation whose members are still, despite the horrors of the past 40-odd years, demanding democracy rather than death to whites.

'I don't know if I'll stay. I might. I'll stay for the moment. Often I think I can't live in a society like this, I don't want to.'

But the new South Africa needs Tselane and those like her. 'People look at me, they say 'oh you're not South African, you're educated'. And I think, well, lots of black South Africans are educated, and if you start thinking of me as the rule rather than the exception, maybe that will change your way of thinking. I'm like this because of the opportunities I've had. If everyone had the same opportunities, perhaps your domestic would be just like me.'

(Photograph omitted)