As a black child growing up outside of Johannesburg in South Africa, Swazi Tshabalala never read about Nelson Mandela, or even dared to speak his name.

"I had no idea what he looked like for the 19 years I was there," said Tshabalala, 24, a graduate student who lives in Mount Pleasant.

As a white child growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, Joanne Katz was often dismayed by a country that automatically exploited and denied its black residents. "The master-servant situation drove me crazy," said Katz, 31, a statistician at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "I didn't like the idea of these people picking up after me. They had to get someone else to look after their own children because they were so busy tending to white people's children. It was a very depressing thing to watch."

There are two groups of transplanted South Africans living in the Washington area and watching Nelson Mandela's triumphant reemergence as a symbol of hope -- whites, who knew the privilege and guilt of living in a society that they controlled, and blacks, who have been struggling for years to obtain the most basic human rights.

For the hundreds of black South Africans who live in the metropolitan region, this is a week of celebration, a time to try to catch a glimpse of a man they have revered for a long, long time.

A few days ago, for example, eight South African friends -- from Chicago, Cincinnati, and upstate New York -- invaded the Franconia home of Khanya Makgabo, even though they knew they would have to sleep on the floor. On Sunday afternoon, they staked out National Airport and finally saw Nelson Mandela.

"We began chanting and singing and he chanted and sang with us," said Makgabo, 26. "It was wonderful."

In the Washington-Baltimore region, there are several thousand former South Africans, people who left that country to attend college or see the world or escape an environment they found either threatening or shameful.

It is not a particularly organized community. Among black South Africans, there is more of a sense of fellowship, from rooming together when they first arrived here and meeting regularly for parties to eat native dishes and speak in native tongues. "You miss the sense of community," said Makgabo, a financial secretary with Evangelical Lutheran Churches of America. "We get together to feel like we're at home."

Although the black South Africans here embrace several schools of political thought, they appear united in their desire to be involved in the anti-apartheid movement at home.

Tshabalala said she and her roommate, who is also South African, support several groups. "We don't necessarily approve of every prescription of the groups we follow," Tshabalala said. "Our affiliations will come clear in time, but right now we feel like we must all be pursuing the same goal."

Several years ago, a few black and white South Africans who live here considered starting a program to foster education among blacks back home; it died for lack of money. For the most part, the local white South Africans describe themselves as liberals, long troubled by their former country's legalized inequities.

For most of the former South Africans, adjustment to American life has come fairly recently and apparently with some ease. Many of the white residents left South Africa in the late 1970s, after U.S. immigration laws were liberalized and after the 1976 Soweto riots that portended more chaos and violence. Of the local group, many are of British or East European Jewish descent, and a large number are affiliated with the medical profession or with academia.

Although Mandela's visit here has cast the brightest spotlight ever on that country's troubles, not all of them enjoy debating the country's politics.

"Whenever anybody recognizes me as a South African, I get into a political debate whether I want to or not," said an area doctor, who is white and did not want to be identified. "I am overpoliticized. I have my personal opinions, and they are personal . . . . I am a little irked by the fact that Mandela's visit has been politicized to the point that American politicians want to be identified with it. It's been blown out of proportion to a pontifical level. He's a frail man and they are exploiting him."

George Moffat, 46, a black South African who lives in Wheaton, is also more subdued than most, but perhaps for different reasons.

A lawyer, Moffat spent 15 years incarcerated on Robben's Island -- the same place Mandela was held -- after being convicted of conspiring to overthrow the South African government with violence. He disagrees with Mandela's strategy of negotiating with leaders of nations.

"It doesn't make me waltz around the room . . . . I welcome him, since he's here," Moffat said about Mandela's arrival. But he is still concerned, he said, that "the pillars of the South African system have not been shaken yet."

One recent newcomer is Jane Keim, who is white and left her home and family in violence-torn Natal four years ago. Watching the television coverage of Mandela's visit to Washington, she said, "has made me very happy and emotional," but she still believes it will be a very long time before South Africa's problems are resolved.

"My mother's maid is afraid to go home each night because of the violence in the black areas," said Keim, 29, an interior decorator who lives in Alexandria. "She's not rejoicing over Mandela's release because it hasn't improved her life."

Of course, Mandela's visit here has revived the old hurts, the old debates, the old memories about their former home.

Norma Kriger, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins and traveled to New York last week to watch Mandela's ticker tape parade, said it is curious to find that many Americans have an image that nearly all white South Africans must be racists.

"The thing that has bothered me about that," said Kriger, a white who left South Africa in 1976, "is that it's coming from people who are living incredibly segregated lives in the United States. Maybe Mandela will be able to do something for race relations here."