The film opens with a black crowd burning alive a black man they regard as a traitor. It then switches to the peaceful home of Micah Mangena, a black sergeant in the South African Police Force.
His son Zweli Mangena increasingly questions Micah belief and Micah's wish that Zweli would follow him into the police. Micha's wife also has doubts as the once-peaceful township gets polarised and her neighbours start treating her as an enemy.
The initial issue is the use of Afrikaans in the all-black school. The school children speak English, Afrikaans and their own African language, but they resent being taught Afrikaans. To reply in English is an act of rebellion.
Zweli dislikes the system but fears the consequence of open opposition. He arranges a meeting between some of the hot-heads and Pule Rampa, a respected figure who has been in prison for anti-Apartheid activities. He seems to be trying to calm the situation, but the police have learned of the gathering and break it up, arresting some of the students and also Pule Rampa. He had been trying to slip away quietly, but Micah anticipates this and arrests him. Micah is in charge of the operation and has attempted moderation, letting some of the students go free.
Micah wants to conduct his own questioning. But two members of South Africa's Special Branch have recently arrived and take over. They employ much more brutal methods. Both Micah and his white superior suggest to the Special Branch men that they are perhaps provoking opposition rather than quelling it.
The situation does indeed escalate. Micah and Zweli are increasingly on opposite sides of a widening gap, even though each of them genuinely cares for the other.