Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie greet cheering crowds outside Victor Verster prison in Paarl. Narrated slide show >>> (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

South Africa and I have a history, one that goes beyond the headlines.

I arrived here as The Times' bureau chief in 1988, when college campuses back home were pulsing with anti-apartheid protests, to cover what would turn out to be the last years of the black freedom struggle -- bombings, funeral processions and brutal clashes with police. My phone was tapped by the government and, during one township visit, I was dragged from my car by armed young "comrades" from the African National Congress, saved only by my laminated press pass.

Our children were born here, our daughter just a toddler when I watched Nelson Mandela walk free from prison. Our son arrived later that year, on the eve of another historic moment -- the first round of negotiations between whites and blacks for a new constitution.

Mandela's release in February 1990 was a watershed moment, and those of us there that day, like the millions watching around the world, had the palpable sense that things would never be the same. Although it touched off a new burst of violence, the country survived four more years to hear Mandela, inaugurated as president, promise to build a "rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."

By then, our family had moved on to another posting, in Paris, and eventually to Los Angeles. But I've returned to South Africa frequently on reporting assignments and, over the years, watched it grow into a multiracial nation with economic opportunity, democratic decision-making and the respect of the world.

When I returned again recently, I took my 17-year-old son, Kevin. As we traveled the country, we reconnected with friends and many of the people I had interviewed over the years. I wasn't sure what we would discover in our journey, or how it would look through the eyes of my son, who hadn't been back since he was a toddler.

Was South Africa living Mandela's dream?

Fancy new shopping malls glitter like jewels on the northern fringe of Johannesburg, and construction cranes preside over the skyline. Suburbs there, once the legal preserve of the white minority, have swelled in size and diversity. But high crime rates have driven more suburbanites into new gated communities, redoubts where white and black children clatter down safe streets on skateboards.

Kevin and I stopped for a look at our former rental home in one of those suburbs and found a fortress: 10-foot walls have replaced our chest-high ones. Across the street was a private security company's new guard station.

A 10-minute drive away, at Morningside Clinic, Ronald White, our obstetrician, emerged from his office to greet us. "Nice to see you again," he said to Kevin, as if he had seen my son just last month, rather than when he was just a few minutes old.

White lamented the number of doctors who have emigrated to Australia, Europe and the United States. "So many of us are leaving," he said. But the view outside his office told a different story: Where once there was a farm, a major expansion of the clinic was underway, and the doctor acknowledged that the area was booming.

"A colleague and I wanted to buy the Harley-Davidson dealership up the street about 10 years ago," White said. "But they wanted 80,000 rand [about $8,000] and we said, 'Man, that's too much.' "

"It's worth half a billion today," he said, laughing. "That's why I'm still working."

"People are always saying that it's bad in South Africa today," the doctor's white receptionist said, "but it doesn't feel so bad. And some of the blacks are doing quite well."

Among them is Zwelakhe Sisulu, a onetime newspaper editor and son of the late anti-apartheid fighters Walter and Albertina Sisulu. He was imprisoned in the 1980s for criticizing the white government, and I remember delivering care packages to his family in Soweto from his American journalist friends.

After the 1994 elections, Sisulu became head of the South African Broadcasting Corp., which used to be the mouthpiece of apartheid, and today runs a private investment group, serves on corporate boards and has homes in a wealthy Johannesburg suburb and on the waterfront in Cape Town.

As he put it: "Black people . . . are serious players in business today. A political leadership, but also a business leadership, is important in a young democracy."

Another close friend, Thami Mazwai, then the city editor of the Sowetan newspaper, also now lives in a formerly all-white suburb. Mazwai and I had met in my early days in South Africa, and over the ensuing years I came to value his friendship as well as his astute analysis of the rifts in the anti-apartheid movement.

After the end of apartheid, Mazwai ran a group of black financial magazines. Now, he's at the University of Johannesburg, as director of its small-business development program.