Sandra Laing (born 1955) is a South African woman notable for appearing as and being classified as "Coloured" by authorities during the apartheid era, due to her skin colour and hair texture, although she was the child of at least three generations of white ancestors. At the age of 10, she was expelled from her all-white school, and the authorities' decisions based on her anomalous appearance disrupted her family and adult life.
Laing is the subject of the 2008 biographical dramatic film Skin, directed by Anthony Fabian, which has won numerous awards. In addition, she is the subject of the documentaries In Search of Sandra Laing (1977), directed by Anthony Thomas for the BBC, which was banned by the apartheid government of the time, Sandra Laing: A Spiritual Journey (2000), and Skin Deep: The Story of Sandra Laing (2009).
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 displayed the physiognomy of African ancestors of earlier generations, perhaps from the 18th century or more recent. Her family treated her as white, the same as their sons Adriaan and Leon, and together they all attended the Dutch Reformed Church.
When Sandra was 10 years old and at an all-white boarding school, the school authorities expelled her because of complaints from the parents of other students, based on her appearance: primarily her skin colour and the texture of her hair. They believed she was "coloured", a term for mixed-race people. She was expelled and escorted home by two police officers.
Sandra's parents fought several legal battles to have her classified as white, based on her documented ancestry through them. Her father underwent a blood-typing test for paternity in the 1960s, as DNA tests were not yet available. The results were compatible with his being her biological father, though such tests are extremely imprecise due to the small number of blood types that most people have.
After the publicity, Sandra found herself shunned by the white community, although she was re-classified as white again in 1966 when the law was changed to allow a person to be classified as white if both parents are classified as white. She attended a coloured boarding school away from her family and became immersed in the non-white world. 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.
Although she and her husband had two children, who were classified as "coloured", she was threatened with losing them unless she also was classified as "coloured", as a white parent could not raise coloured children. At the age of 26, she arranged for the change in race classification officially, although her father had refused permission earlier. Except for secret trips to see her mother when her father was out of the house, Laing was estranged from her family and struggled to survive economically. When her parents moved away from Piet Retief, the clandestine visits were no longer possible. Laing lost contact with her family completely.
Laing and her husband separated due to the pressures they were under, and she put their children into government care for a period. Years later she married again, to Johannes Motloung, a Sotho-speaking man. They had three children together and she was able to reclaim her first two; all are now grown and with families of their own. Trying to reconcile with her family in the 1980s, Laing learned that her father had died and her mother Sannie refused to see her.
In 2000 the Johannesburg Times tracked down Laing to learn about her years since the end of apartheid. The newspaper helped her find her mother, and they were able to reconcile. Sannie was then in a nursing home. Sannie and she shared time together before her mother's death in 2001.
The publicity helped Laing, her husband and family gain new housing; they now live in Leachville, new estates east of Johannesburg. As of 2009, Laing's brothers still refused to see her. She has said in interviews with The Guardian and Little White Lies that she continued to hope they would some day have a change of heart. Judy Stone, part of the editorial staff of Oprah! magazine, was writing a biography to be published in 2004, and Miramax had already bought the movie rights.
Representation in other media
Documentary films have been made about Laing:
- In Search of Sandra Laing (1977), BBC, directed by Anthony Thomas (released during the apartheid era, this film was banned from distribution in South Africa)
- Sandra Laing: A Spiritual Journey (2000)
- Skin Deep: The Story of Sandra Laing (2009)
and a dramatic film:
- Skin (2008) based on Laing's life story, directed by Anthony Fabian and starring Sam Neill, Alice Krige, and Sophie Okonedo.
based on the book:
- When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race by Judith Stone
- Skin movie official website
- Skin film review, Mail & Guardian, 21 January 2010.
- "Black Afrikaner" story to become film, BBC News, 29 May 2003.
- Rory Carroll (17 March 2003). "The black woman - with white parents". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 17 March 2003.
- Kim Hawkey (10 January 2010). "Apartheid got under her skin". Sunday Times.
- "The Tragic Story of How a White Girl Being Born Black Tore a Family Apart". The Daily Mail. London. 19 December 2008. Retrieved 16 August 2011.
- Sophie Ivan, "Sandra Laing: profile and photo", Little White Lies, 24 July 2009, accessed 6 February 2014.
- Judith Stone, When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided By Race, Miramax, 2004, hardcover/2008, paperback, ISBN 978-1401309374
- Catherine O'Brien, "The Tragic Story: White Girl Born Black Tore Family Apart", Daily Mail, 19 December 2008.