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COLUMN ONE : The Long Trail Back From Exile : After losing her husband and a son in the ANC’s struggle for liberation, a woman dreamed of returning to South Africa. Now, she finds herself a stranger in her own land.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During 14 hard years in African exile, Meisie Khayiyana dreamed of returning to a liberated South Africa and pined for this peaceful township and the two toddlers she had left behind.

She wrote letter after letter home, but each was confiscated by the South African police. Were her children still alive? Did they know why their mother had left? Or that their father had been killed in the struggle for black liberation? She had no way of knowing.

Meisie Khayiyana (kaw-yee-YAW-naw) came home to the answers a few months ago. But for her, like hundreds of her compatriots, the pain of resettlement turned out to be almost more than she could bear.

There was no heroine’s welcome in Mzinoni, the small rural township she had left at the age of 28. Now 42, she felt like a stranger here. The neighbors regarded her with suspicion, certain that the police who once raided homes to search for her and her husband wouldn’t be far behind.

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She was reunited with her son and daughter, grown into teen-agers now. But two younger children born and raised in exile, where they spoke English and lived in a large home, were miserable in the cramped, cold township house and this new, Zulu-speaking world.

Things went no better in Bethal, the conservative town where Khayiyana once worked as a nanny for whites. She had forgotten her Afrikaans, and white store clerks professed not to understand the foreign-accented English of this self-assured black woman.

So far, about 3,000 of the estimated 30,000 African National Congress exiles have returned to South Africa from Zambia, Tanzania, Angola, Europe and the United States. They have pushed their luggage carts past well-wishers who serenaded them with the songs of liberation.

But a hard reality has awaited them outside the airport.

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Gone are many of the laws that made life miserable for blacks. But it’s far too early for victory parades. The white government still is in charge, and difficult constitutional negotiations still stand in the way of one-person, one-vote majority rule.

Accustomed to jobs, food, clothing and homes supplied by the ANC in exile, the returnees have found the ANC strapped for cash and spending what it has on organizing itself as a political force inside the country.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has promised to help register, transport and then resettle exiles. But the ANC hasn’t been able to offer jobs to more than a few of the returnees, and it is a difficult time to be looking for work in South Africa; 45% of adult blacks in urban areas are jobless.

The Sowetan, the country’s largest black newspaper, warns of difficult times for these returning exiles.

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“In many cases, too much will have changed,” the Sowetan said in a recent editorial. “Loved ones will have died, and in some cases cherished memories and dreams will turn out to be false.”

When Khayiyana left South Africa in 1977, she had no idea that she and her husband, Victor, might never return.

“You cannot go back because I’m a wanted man,” she remembers Victor telling her after they had climbed a border fence into Swaziland. “If I let you go back, the police will be after you.”

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

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“I am an ANC man,” he said, telling her for the first time of his secret life in the ANC underground.

The couple had left their four young children with relatives in South Africa--the two oldest boys with Victor’s mother and a 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter with Meisie’s mother. And Meisie was miserable.

“You can’t take me away from my children,” she said. But her husband assured her he would try to get the children out of South Africa.

After three years in Swaziland, the Khayiyanas were sent by the ANC to Mozambique and then to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania in East Africa.

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Meisie gave birth to a baby boy there, and her husband managed to spirit their two oldest sons out of South Africa to join her. But each time he tried to rescue the two younger children from Meisie’s mother’s house in Mzinoni, he found the home surrounded by police.

The house in Mzinoni had no telephone, so Meisie wrote and mailed dozens of letters to her mother and the two children still left behind. But there was no reply.

“I was just telling myself that I had nobody at home, that no one was still alive,” Khayiyana remembers. “All those years, I thought I had nobody left in South Africa.”

Back in Mzinoni, the police were making frequent late-night visits to Meisie’s family.

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“They would find us sleeping and they’d search all the rooms, checking under the beds and in the wardrobes (closets),” remembers Meisie’s daughter, Lindiwe, now 17. “All the time they were demanding to know: Where are our mother and father?”

No one in Meisie’s family knew that she and Victor had joined the ANC in exile. And not one of Meisie’s letters got through the fingers of the security police at the post office in Bethal.

Lindiwe figured her parents were probably criminals. “Maybe they did something wrong, killed somebody or stole something,” she said. “Why else would the police be harassing this house?”

Victor’s mother, who lived in a nearby township, knew about her son’s ANC activities. But she was afraid to contact Meisie’s family. Eventually, Victor’s mother left the country to escape police harassment and settled far away in the nominally independent black homeland of Transkei.

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Meanwhile, almost everyone in Mzinoni assumed that Victor and Meisie Khayiyana were fugitives from justice and probably dead.

In Tanzania, Meisie began working on an ANC project to establish a school for exiled children. Malaria was a constant threat to the exiles, and Meisie spent so much time being treated for malaria that she learned Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa, from nurses in the local hospital.

She had another child, but by then her husband was rarely at home. Now a full-fledged member of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), Victor was carrying out bombing missions inside South Africa.

In 1985, their oldest son, Duncan, left school to follow his father into the ANC army. And Meisie received orders from the ANC to move to the headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, where she was told she would be reunited with her husband.

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Soon after arriving in Lusaka, however, her husband was killed on a mission in Piet Retief, a South African town near the Swaziland border.

“He died ‘in action'--that’s all they said,” she said. “They didn’t say how.”

Two months later, in January, 1986, Meisie’s son, Duncan, was killed during military training in Yugoslavia. He was 19.

“I don’t know how it happened,” Khayiyana said. “ ‘He was a soldier who fell in the struggle.’ They just said it like that. I was in a bad state by that time.”

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Back in Mzinoni, the police knew that Victor Khayiyana was dead, and their visits to the family home abruptly ceased. But no one in Meisie’s family knew why.

“All we knew was that Victor was always wanted in this place,” said Meisie’s aunt, Michael Mkhatshwa. “He was a dangerous somebody.”

Meisie began work at an ANC nursery school in Lusaka. She and her three children lived in a house with four bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and had electricity, indoor plumbing and a TV set.

She collected rations of food and used clothing from the ANC, then sold the clothes to buy meat, which the ANC did not provide. The ANC paid all their medical bills.

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Meisie’s prospects of returning to South Africa were dim until last year, when the ANC was legalized and its leader, Nelson Mandela, was freed from prison. Meisie filled out the South African government’s indemnity forms in Lusaka and was granted permission to return. Carrying a travel document mailed from Pretoria, she and 200 exiles boarded a Zambia Airways plane bound for Johannesburg.

When she arrived and checked into a Johannesburg hotel, she found the name and number of one of her Mzinoni neighbors in the telephone book. She made the call and learned, for the first time, that her mother had died in 1980 of a heart condition that relatives said was worsened by the constant police harassment. Meisie’s mother never knew that her only child, who had vanished three years earlier, was safe in exile.

The next day, Meisie took a taxi-van to Mzinoni. She had to ask directions several times but finally found her uncle and the house in which she had been born.

“Please show me my children,” she said.

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“This is one, and this is one,” the uncle said, pointing to Lindiwe, now a young woman, and Needy, a tall 19-year-old with the handsome face of his father.

“Oh, my God,” was all she could manage.

At first, Meisie’s daughter Lindiwe wasn’t sure what to feel. She stood stony-faced, fighting her emotions, and then broke into tears.

“I was happy but worried, too,” Lindiwe said. “I thought the police would start coming again.” So far, the police haven’t made any return visits to the house.

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Over the next few weeks, she told the children about their father and their life in exile. She described how their father had tried to get them out of South Africa.

“Oh, shame, Mama,” Lindiwe said. “If we knew he was here, we would have rushed outside and followed him.”

The children had experienced a difficult life as orphans in South Africa. Lindiwe remained in school, but the family didn’t have enough money for school fees for Needy, who dropped out after the 6th grade. Now Needy, happy to learn his father was a hero, has been talking lately about joining the ANC’s army.

“Needy is singing these ANC songs, and I’m trying to tell him, don’t join this thing,” his mother said. “We are enough. But you can’t tell boys they must not join.”

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Khayiyana moved her reunited family into her family’s house, a square, concrete structure with a metal roof and warmed by a coal fire. The spare furniture is covered with a thin layer of dust, from the dirt road outside.

The house has no electricity, and the family warms itself at a coal fire in the kitchen. The only flush toilet is out back, and the television works on a car battery.

“Home is a home,” Khayiyana said. “Nobody doesn’t want to go home. No matter that we were staying in that nice house in Lusaka. I was born poor, and I’m home. Even now, I don’t want to go back in exile.”

But that hasn’t made the adjustment any easier. Meisie is a different person today, a chain-smoker hardened and politicized by her years in exile. To her township neighbors, she is an exotic stranger--whose very presence might mean trouble.

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“You can see people are afraid for me, as if, even now, I will cause a problem,” she said. “If I try to talk about politics, they say, ‘Leave that thing.’ I don’t know how I can get the people to understand. My husband died for them.”

She figures she won’t be able to get a job in Bethal, a stronghold of the right-wing Conservative Party that opposes President Frederik W. de Klerk’s apartheid reforms.

“The whites here are not friendly,” she said. “If you are political in Bethal, they take you as a wild animal.”

Some things have changed in Bethal, though. The separate counters are gone from the post office, and blacks and whites stand in line together now. But it’s a far cry from Lusaka, the impoverished capital where “we were accepted everywhere,” she said.

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“When we went for a swim in Lusaka, we swam together with whites,” she added. “I was thinking that maybe even in South Africa it was like that. But it is not. I think the whites here are going to take time.”

Khayiyana was a latecomer to the liberation struggle. Until her husband took her to Swaziland, she hadn’t known anything about the ANC or politics. And blacks in Mzinoni knew better than to make waves.

“Back in those days, I was treated as a black,” she said. “I couldn’t even touch their (whites’) cup to drink water. Maybe I was a dog or a cat. I don’t know. But those whites were thinking the country was theirs only.”

When she arrived in Johannesburg, the ANC gave Khayiyana 2,000 rand, or about $715. She spent the money on blankets and sweaters for the winter, school fees for her two Tanzanian-born children and school clothes for Lindiwe. Within a few days, the money was gone.

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The ANC had promised to send her 1,400 rand, or about $500, every month for six months and give her a new place to live. But neither the money nor the house has materialized.

Now she makes dresses, which she is trying to sell to other township residents. And she tries to explain this strange new society to 7-year-old Busisiwe and 11-year-old Mzwandile, the children born in exile.

Khayiyana, her aunt and the children were walking in Bethal recently when they saw some white children playing in front of a house. Busisiwe wanted to play with the children, but Khayiyana’s aunt whispered a warning.

“They mustn’t go there,” the aunt said. “The whites will not allow it.”

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Khayiyana tried to distract her youngest.

“But, Mama, why?” Busisiwe pleaded. “I just want to ask them their names.”

“We are in a hurry,” her mother lied.

“It’s so difficult to convince them that it is different here,” Khayiyana explained later. “I told her that one day we would go play with those children. But I know it won’t happen.”

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