He was 13, at a Catholic boarding school in Swaziland, when the rector called him to his office. He broke the bad news as gently as he could. "He told me that my father had been sentenced to life imprisonment," Zwelakhe Sisulu remembers. "My reaction was to break down. I mean, as far as I was concerned, life imprisonment was as good as death; to me it meant I would never see him again. And my reaction was to cry and cry and cry."

Later, and this may be when the boy became a man, he found new feelings. Back home in Soweto on school holidays, he confided them to his mother. "He actually said that whether they like it or not, when he grew up he would take his father out of jail," Albertina Sisulu says. "I think that's what he intended doing."

That was 1964.

Now 37, Sisulu has become one of South Africa's most influential black newspapermen. He covered the 1976 Soweto uprising and led the first-ever strike by black journalists. Two years ago, he became editor of The New Nation, a black-run paper that calls itself "The Voice of the Voteless." Before that, he spent a year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, where he devoured books, bought up Harry Belafonte records, rooted for the New England Patriots and lolled about with his wife Zodwa and their two children on the banks of the Charles River.

Last year's Nieman class chose him for the prestigious Louis Lyons Award for Courageous Journalism. Tonight, in Washington, the International Human Rights Law Group will honor him, along with Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, with a human rights award. Many South Africans, black and white alike, say Sisulu is destined to play a major role in the future of his conflict-ridden land -- not just because the Sisulu family has a long history of fighting apartheid, but because he himself has become an inspirational leader. "Zwelakhe is the kind of man who gives you the belief that a nonracial democracy is something you can believe in and work for," says his friend Nick Binedell, a white university professor in Johannesburg.

But one thing Sisulu set out to accomplish in life remains hauntingly undone. He has yet to discharge that vow of filial love and teen-age rage made 24 years ago. Walter Sisulu -- former secretary general of the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela's right-hand man -- is still in prison today. What's more, his son is in no position to help right now. He's in prison himself.

At about 2 a.m. on Dec. 12, 1986, six plainclothes security policemen, five whites and one black, banged on the door of the Sisulus' three-room house in Soweto. Pack your bag, they told Zwelakhe, you're coming with us. His 6-year-old son Moyikwa woke up during the commotion. ("Police are awkward people," Zodwa Sisulu, 35, said dully, as she told the story in a recent telephone interview.) Then they drove off in the dark.

So far, it's been 17 months. There have been no charges, no appearances in court -- and as a detainee under South African security laws, Sisulu can be held as long as the government likes. A call for his release in March by 52 U.S. senators fell on deaf ears in Pretoria.

Moyikwa just had his second birthday without his father. "He keeps postponing the party," Zodwa said. Sisulu's daughter Zoya is 5. "Everything in their life is kind of stopped," their mother said, "because they are waiting for him."

The South African debate of the '80s revolves around this question: How much is it changing? The answer depends on your point of view.

If you're looking at the details of everyday life, the answer is a lot. Blacks and whites can now eat in the same restaurants, use the same restrooms, go to the same movie theaters, join the same army, carry the same government-issued I.D. cards and exchange wedding vows with any partner, whatever their color or hair style.

But if you're looking at the Big Picture, the one with a script that includes free speech, an unfettered press, protection from unwarranted arrest, and the right to organize politically, live where you please, run your own schools and vote for your own leaders, 1988 doesn't seem so different from 1964.

Zwelakhe Sisulu's saga, one spanning three generations, is a case in point. Like his father before him, and perhaps his son after him, Sisulu exemplifies what can happen to those South Africans, black and white, who say their beloved country deserves more change than it's gotten so far.

A slender man with just a bit of thickening around his waist, Sisulu has light brown skin, a straight nose and a sparse, wiry beard. But perhaps his most striking feature on first meeting is what Callie Crossley, a producer for ABC's "20/20" who met Sisulu during his year in Boston, calls "this great radio voice. It's mesmerizing. He could have been an actor."

Talking about himself and his life, Sisulu mostly uses the impersonal pronoun "one" rather than "I." It's a tiny clue to the way he thinks: rationally, unemotionally. "He doesn't roll out slogans," says one former white editor in South Africa. "He's just too bright for that. He's got a very sharp, analytical mind."

"He's got this amazing talent, which is like a magnet," says Gabu Tugwana, acting editor of The New Nation since Sisulu's detention. "He argues very strongly . . . and at times, he would come to you a long time later and say, 'You are right.' What you discuss with him, it doesn't just end with the conversation, he goes on to analyze."

Combine that with a tolerance for different views and a way with people -- Sisulu calls colleagues "tata," which means "buddy" -- and you get an idea why he is seen as a leader.

When the four Sisulus moved to Boston in the fall of 1984, it was their first trip "to the Northern Hemisphere," as Zodwa puts it. An X-ray technician, she volunteered at local hospitals for the experience and took courses at Harvard. What they liked best about Boston, she says, "was the convenience of the libraries. They were just thrown all over, in walking distance. We went to libraries and museums and everything was just around the corner."

The Nieman program, which brings selected American and foreign journalists together for a year of study at Harvard, is the kind of temporary community where people get to know each other very well. Yet it was not until the spring that the 1984-1985 group, after much badgering, persuaded the Sisulus to talk at length about their lives.

"It was a lovely spring afternoon in Cambridge," recalls Edwin Chen, an editor at the Los Angeles Times, "and what I will never forget is the contrast of the security and warmth of that afternoon and hearing what had happened to Zwelakhe ... Only then did it hit me what a terrible situation he was going home to. This was exactly the same situation Zwelakhe grew up in, you know, with his father."

What follows -- amplified by Sisulu's own recollections during a taped 1983 interview in South Africa with Millard Arnold, a Washington attorney researching a book on banned persons -- is the story the Sisulus told.

Zwelakhe (the name, pronounced Zway-LAH-kee, means "his country" in Xhosa) Sisulu was born in Soweto, the fourth of five children of Albertina and Walter Max Sisulu. When his parents married in 1944, Nelson Mandela, Walter's close friend, was best man. A guest toasted the couple with this warning to the bride: "You are marrying a man who is already married to the nation."

In those years, Sisulu and Mandela were angry young Turks in the black nationalist movement, the African National Congress. Eventually, Mandela was elected its president and Sisulu, its secretary general.

"My earliest recollections of home," Sisulu told Arnold, "are of lots of people, endless meetings and being exposed to people of all colors at a very early age." His father was rarely home, because he was either in jail or attending political rallies. Each time his parents were detained, "we used to cry and invariably . . . one of the neighbors would come and we would pray . . . I mean, the strange thing is, that it's a type of situation that is very much like death; you never get used to it."

When the ANC, founded in 1912, was outlawed by the government in 1960, its leaders -- despairing of nonviolent change -- formed ANC's guerrilla wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), and went into hiding. Following a series of bombings, Mandela and Sisulu, along with seven others, were convicted in 1964 of planning acts of political sabotage and revolution. Prison has been their home ever since. Walter Sisulu is 75.

Albertina Sisulu was left to tend the home fires. To the kids around the township, she was just another gogo, or grandmother, supporting the family on her nurse's salary. But she continued to speak out against apartheid and, as a result, was declared a banned person for 18 years, forbidden to attend any gathering of more than two people. For 10 of those years, she was under house arrest. A month ago, at the age of 70, she was again banned and placed under house arrest. Two of her children are in exile because of their political activities. The eldest son, Max, 43, works with the ANC in Zambia.

In the early '60s, the three youngest Sisulu children (there are eight in all, three of them adopted) were sent to boarding school in Swaziland. As a child, Zwelakhe was always asking questions, his mother recalls. "I wanted him to be a lawyer, because of his way of doing things, asking questions, wanting to know how people lived. I thought he would help people better by defending them from the enemy."

But her son liked to write. After high school, which he completed at Soweto's Orlando High, Sisulu began tapping out short stories. The rejection slips kept coming, however, and, already working as a punch-card operator, he was about to go into computer programming full time when somebody suggested reporting. In 1975, he became one of the first black interns at the white-owned South African Associated Newspapers, publisher of several English-language opposition newspapers.

His name drew attention in the newsroom. Ahmeen Ahklwaya, who became a friend of Sisulu's, recalls that when Sisulu arrived, "the first question everyone would ask was, 'Are you Walter and Albertina's son?' He would say yes quickly and change the subject . . . He was proud of them, but he didn't want to trade on their name."

When Soweto blew up in 1976 and clashes between rock-throwing students and armed police turned the smoldering township into a battleground, Sisulu was at Johannesburg's Rand Daily Mail. It was a hellish time in South African newsrooms. Whites couldn't get into the townships. Black reporters became the eyes and ears of newspapers in a way they had never been before. For Sisulu, the year was a turning point both professionally and personally.

He told Arnold about one night when he was assigned to stake out the Orlando police station that "filled me with so much hate, I will never forget . . . Throughout the night, there were these vans coming in, offloading some stuff in the yard. Then about midnight, a group of youngsters, I mean children, 9, 10, 11 and 13, some of them still in their school uniforms, were taken from their cells {and} taken to this heap.

"Then a van came, and they were asked to load these things. We came nearer and for the first time, we realized that that heap was in fact corpses. And these kids were told to take these corpses and throw them onto the {truck} ... and whilst doing this, one could hear groans from that heap. There were people still groaning there, who were not dead, but presumably not far from death. Some children were crying, but most were just frozen by the shock, they were just scared." When he told his editors this story, Sisulu told the Nieman group, they reacted with disbelief, and it was never printed.

"Prior to '76, black reporters were not really reporters, they were legmen, they would be sent out to get the facts {and} present them to white journalists, who would put it together ... The black media was sports and sex ... Black journalists were known as drunks, which was true. They were known as people who did not focus on the real concerns of black people, which was true. Black reporters were generally viewed as negative, worthless people. But {events in 1976} gave black journalists the opportunity to take stock of themselves and this they did."

In 1978, Sisulu resigned from the Rand Daily Mail to become news editor of the Sunday Post, a black-staffed paper in Soweto. It was the same year he and Zodwa married. They had met in 1969 while she was house-sitting for someone in detention. Asked recently if she ever thought twice about marrying into a family known for its political activism, she answered without hesitation.

"No, I just loved him," she said. "Whatever the link was, it was too weak to stop me from marrying him. He had so many qualities, that couldn't matter. He was very caring and understanding and talked very intelligently." Even in detention, she said, "he is still my loving husband and I recognize that every hour."

Also in 1978, Sisulu was elected president of the Writers Association of South Africa (WASA), an organization of black journalists inspired by the black consciousness movement of Steve Biko, who had died the previous year after being brutally beaten in jail. Under Sisulu's stewardship, WASA broadened its membership beyond journalists and changed its name to the Media Workers Association of South Africa.

His political skills came to the fore when MWASA went out on strike in 1980. "He's a very good mediator," said black reporter Sam Mabe. "It was sticking out like a sore thumb." The strike ended two months later with concessions from management, including formal recognition of MWASA as a union. Sisulu called it "a major success."

In South Africa, this kind of success often brings an unwelcome knock on the door. A few weeks after the strike, Sisulu and five other MWASA leaders were banned for three years. Because a banned person cannot speak to more than one person at a time, attend meetings, visit schools, factories or newspapers, or be quoted, Sisulu's journalistic career was suspended.

The banning brought other frustrations as well. "More often than not, you are banned at the height of your personal activity," Sisulu said. "When you suddenly switch off, the effect can be quite devastating. I mean, suddenly you are removed from effecting any decision. That can be frustrating. Suddenly, you are removed from participating, and that has been your life as it were . . . It was difficult for me to come to terms with that."

Then, in June 1981, Sisulu was detained for the first time. Held under the Terrorism Act, which allows indefinite detention without charge, he was kept in a cell so small that he could touch every wall without standing up. Often, he was naked. A bare light bulb shone all the time. "When it was hot, they would open the heaters so you would sweat and couldn't possibly sleep ... the only water was in the toilet basin and ... you have no other way but to go there, drink the water ... you don't wash for weeks on end."

After three months, Sisulu was taken to a jail in Sandton, an all-white suburb of Johannesburg. Here, within a stone's throw of the swimming pools and tennis courts that come with almost every home, "is where the interrogation started," he told Arnold. "They said I must tell them why I was detained. I said I didn't know ... so they sent me to this room, which they called the 'House Of Truth,' and there, the stock methods of torture used on detainees in South Africa were used on me.

"Some of them I find very difficult to talk about ... {being} electrocuted, having your hands and feet cuffed and they put a broom through and you are swung by that for hours on end. Very humiliating things."

After eight months, they just opened the doors and let him go home. No explanations.

In Cambridge, after the Sisulus finished their story, some of their fellow journalists tried to persuade them not to go back to South Africa. They never got very far. "He made it clear to all of us," said Mike Pride, editor of the Concord Monitor, "that he was going to go back and to say what needed to be said and accept whatever consequences would be entailed."

"It would be betrayal if we had stayed away," Zodwa Sisulu explained recently from home. "So much was happening that needed attention immediately in the family." Sisulu's mother had been redetained, she noted. Besides that, unlike the Sisulu siblings who decided to go into exile, "we felt we belong here and we have to stand our ground here."

The country they returned to was in turmoil. Unrest was widespread in the summer of 1985. Television news broadcasts around the world showed army troops occupying the defiant townships, where black students were boycotting schools and unruly mobs controlled streets littered with burned-out vehicles. By the end of the year, a state of emergency was in effect, along with the most severe press restrictions ever.

In Johannesburg, Sisulu filled his New Nation office with books and hung a picture of Mandela on the wall. His paper, a weekly tabloid financed by the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops' Conference, is one of several "alternative" publications that cover the news from a black perspective. New Nation's front page, printed in color, featured hard-hitting political news stories detailing detentions, bannings and rent strikes. Inside, its readers (circulation is 50,000, and many people see each copy) found wires on world news, a supplement containing educational exercises, a sports section and analyses on the impact of new laws affecting antiapartheid organizations.

Old friends who looked up Sisulu after his return noticed a change. "I don't know what Boston did to these people," says Thami Mazwai, news editor of the Sowetan. "He was always a man with a mission. The commitment is now even stronger. He believes that newspapers have got to play a much more prominent role in the struggle."

In times of unrest in South Africa, excitement and optimism often take hold in the black community even though concrete gains are not being won. It was in such a milieu that Sisulu, according to one observer, played a key role upon his return. "At the height of the debate about making townships ungovernable, this euphoria of creating 'liberated zones' in 1985, Zwelakhe shifted the debate," said Helen Zille, a former Sisulu colleague on the Rand Daily Mail. "He was arguing the debate should shift from making townships ungovernable to building up organizations and instruments for people's power. He was trying to move away from protest politics to getting things done."

In March 1986, Sisulu was asked to deliver the keynote speech at a conference of the National Education Crisis Committee (NECC), set up by worried parents to study black education and persuade their children to go back to school.

Speaking in Durban to 1,500 students, teachers, parents, activists and union members, Sisulu said that the state of emergency indicated that "the state is no longer in control of events." But, he added, "I want to strike a note of caution . . . We are not poised for the immediate transfer of power to the people . . . we have to understand our strengths and weaknesses . . . we must be clear about what we want . . . we must also be clear as to how we are going to achieve this."

Sisulu supported a planned one-day work strike to protest apartheid on May 1, advocated the use of rent and consumer boycotts and urged the formation of "alternative structures" by blacks in their schools, neighborhoods and factories as a way to exercise "people's power." Coercion and intimidation, he said, were not the way to win support among blacks for such initiatives.

Reviewing the past year, Sisulu added: "The ANC, in particular, became seen as the primary actor on the South African stage. Not only the people, but sections of the white ruling bloc, began to look to the ANC to provide an indication of future direction."

This open declaration of support for the banned movement exemplified the rising trend in recent years for ANC supporters to publicly manifest their sympathies, whether by waving the movement's flag at a funeral, quoting its leaders in articles or mentioning it in speeches. There has been some increased curiosity about the ANC among whites as well: Despite its outlawed status, a group including prominent white South Africans met last year with its exiled leadership in Senegal. The government denounced them but took no legal action.

Sisulu's NECC speech did not call for violence in any form; the specific actions he urged are ones most Americans take for granted as means of protest and political organizing. In fact, his proposals could be read as supporting one of apartheid's basic theoretical premises: that blacks should run their own affairs in their own areas. But the government does not tolerate such initiatives if they are seen as ANC inspired.

Three months after Sisulu's speech, four white men hiding their faces in balaclavas and driving a car with an upside-down license plate took him from his home in the middle of the night. Amid reports that he'd been kidnaped by vigilantes, the government admitted it was holding him. Released three weeks later, Sisulu told National Public Radio in an interview that the police questioned him about the ANC and the NECC, and told him "they were unhappy with the stance of my newspaper and if need be, would close it down."

After he was detained again in December 1986, his attorney, Priscilla Jana, asked for an explanation. Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok responded in a letter dated Feb. 2, 1987:

"I wish to advise that the political unrest which prevails in the country, especially amongst the Black communities, manifests itself in various ways, inter alia, in endeavours to bring the administration of the State into disrepute by the creation of unofficial structures intent on supplanting existing ones, and to intimidate members of the community to partake in consumer boycotts against their will.

"According to information at my disposal your client is an executive member of the 'National Education Crisis Committee' ... {which} supports all rent and consumer boycotts as well as the implementation of 'Street Committees.' They also insist on the implementation of the so-called 'People's Education' to replace the existing educational system. By his active involvement in the NECC your client endangered and undermined the maintenance of public order."

Later, when Jana went to court to argue for Sisulu's release, there were other allegations: "about making contact with the ANC and acting under the instructions of the ANC," she said. Sisulu is appealing the court's order denying his release.

The NECC is now banned. In March, the government suspended publication of the New Nation for three months for allegedly promoting revolution. Acting editor Tugwana and the rest of the staff still go to the office, preparing for the paper's return on June 16. But that is not a certainty, he says, especially in light of recent government threats of suspensions against other papers. South, an antiapartheid weekly published in Cape Town, was shut down on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Sisulu family waits.

Walter Sisulu remains in detention near Cape Town; he is unlikely to be released unless his health fails drastically.

Zwelakhe Sisulu is being held at a prison near Soweto. He gets to see his family every other Monday, through a glass window, for half an hour. They speak using an intercom that often breaks down, forcing them to shout. The rules include no kissing, no hugging and, of course, no talking politics. Sisulu is in a cell by himself but has been allowed to take a correspondence course. Asked how he was faring when she last saw him, his wife replied: "The hope has faded, he's just waiting. He's lost weight tremendously."

And young Moyikwa Sisulu is learning some bitter lessons at an early age. "Sometimes when he talks about how things are, he talks with his teeth together," his mother observed. "Sometimes he clenches his fist."