Sandra Laing (1955-)



Sandra Laing was born in 1955 to Sannie and Abraham Laing, Afrikaners in Piet Retief, a small conservative town in South Africa during the apartheid era, when laws governed officially established social castes of racial classification. The girl had darker skin than others in her family, which seemed to become more obvious as she grew older. Her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all white, but Sandra apparently was an example of atavism, a genetic throwback to some earlier African ancestor. Her family treated her as white, the same as their sons Adriaan and Leon. When Sandra was 10 years old and at an all-white boarding school, the school authorities expelled her because of complaints by parents of other students, based on her appearance: primarily skin colour and the texture of her hair. They believed she was « coloured », a term for mixed-race people.She was escorted home by two police officers. Sandra’s parents fought several legal battles to have her classified as white. Her father underwent a blood-typing test for paternity in the 1960s, as DNA tests were not yet available. Sandra found herself shunned by the white community, although her parents gained classification of her as white again in 1966. Her only friends were the children of black employees. At the age of 16, Laing eloped to Swaziland with Petrus Zwane, a black South African who spoke Zulu. She was jailed for three months for illegal border-crossing. Her father threatened to kill her for the marriage and broke off contact with her. They never met again. When she returned to South Africa she was forced by law to live in a black township, a place with no power or running water. Even worse, her children were not allowed to live with her: they were “black” and she was still “white”. She tried to get herself changed back to coloured so they could stay with her, but her father blocked it. It took her ten years to get them back. Her father went to his grave never seeing her again. Even her two (white) brothers, who are still alive, will not see her. They blame her for their parents’ unhappiness: ever since she ran away they were never happy again. But she did get to see her mother in 2000 just before she died. Her story was made into a documentary in the 1970s which was not allowed to be shown in South Africa. It has also been made into a book, “When She Was White” by Judith Stone, and a British film, “Skin” (2009), starring Sophie Okonedo and Sam Neill.




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