Biography of Sandra LAINGSouth Africa > Social : Sandra LAING
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Sandra Laing (b.in 1955), is a South African woman born "In apartheid-era South Africa, a country where race meant everything, Sandra Laing was a poster child for injustice, classified "colored" even though her parents were white." A year later, she was reclassified as white.
Kicked out of an all-white boarding school because of the color of her skin, Laing was later reclassified white in response to her parents' legal campaign. But in a viciously racist society, her family rejected her when she fell in love with a black man, leaving her to start her life anew.
During the worst years of official racism in South Africa, the story of one young girl gripped the nation and came to symbolize the injustice, corruption, and arbitrary nature of apartheid. Born in 1955 to a pro-apartheid Afrikaner couple, Sandra Laing was officially registered and raised as a white child. But when she was sent to a boarding school for whites, she was mercilessly persecuted because of her dark skin and frizzy hair. Her parents attributed Sandra’s appearance to an interracial union far back in history; they swore Sandra was their child. Their neighbors, however, thought Mrs. Laing had committed adultery with a black man. The family was shunned. And when Sandra was ten, she was removed from school by the police and reclassified as "coloured."
Treated as white by her parents and two brothers, Adriaan and Leon, she attended the Dutch Reformed Church and was reared as a God-fearing Afrikaner superior to blacks and "coloureds", those of mixed race. "My parents were good people and they loved me very much." The tight black curly hair and ever-darkening skin was noticeable to all and Sandra remembers being told by her mother to avoid the sun. Teachers looked away when classmates called her a "kaffir" and one day, after five years at the Deborah Retief boarding school, the principal told her to pack her bag; she was being expelled. Two policemen escorted the 10-year-old home.
Sandra's father wept and tried to explain to her about the laws which said she would have to attend a school for black or coloured children. Taking their cue from the state, the community punished the family: ignored at church, refused ice cream at shops, rejected by nine schools, cursed. Abraham Laing appealed in vain against Sandra's reclassification as coloured and she ended up in a boarding school 900km from home, lonely, a bedwetter. In 1967 she was reclassified white when the law changed to say the child of two white parents could not belong to another racial group. Blood tests proved she was the biological offspring of Abraham and Sannie.
By now Sandra felt more at ease with non-whites and at the age of 16 she eloped with a Zulu-speaking vegetable-seller, Petrus Zwane. "My father was furious because I married a black man. He threatened to shoot first me then himself if I ever put my foot over his threshold again." It was a step into another world, from ruling caste privilege to the oppression and poverty of townships. From apartheid there was no escape: Sandra would not be allowed to keep her two children unless she was reclassified coloured, as they were, but her father refused his consent, and without documents she had to eke out a living with odd jobs.
Evicted from their town to make way for whites, Petrus turned drunk and violent and Sandra, destitute, placed the children with social welfare, the hardest decision of her life, she says. As apartheid entered crisis in the 1980s Sandra tried in vain to contact her family, only to learn Abraham had died and Sannie did not want to see her. Sandra found a second husband, Johannes Motloung, and had another three children after being reunited with her first two. Few years ago the Johannesburg Sunday Times found her in a township on the East Rand and arranged a tearful reunion at a nursing home with her mother. Months short of her death, Sannie was bubbly and alert: "Now tell me again, about the children." Sandra's brothers, said to be right-wing, still shun contact.
Her book called "When she was white" was noticed internationally and inspired a film "Skin" in 2008, where the Anglo-Nigerian actress Sophie Okenedo played the role of Sandra.
Based on the life of Sandra Laing, SKIN is one of the most fascinating and emotive true stories to emerge from apartheid South Africa: the story of a black girl born to two white Afrikaner parents, unaware of their black ancestry, it demonstrates the insanity and unjustified cruelty of a society divided along racial lines.
Sandra Laing: Black girl, white parents
Last update : 05/13/2012Update this page