Sandra Laing's agonising journey

The summons to the headmaster's office

One day in March 1966 a little girl sitting in her classroom at school was called to the headmaster's office. In the headmaster's office were two policemen.

“I'm afraid you're going to have to leave us,” the headmaster said to her, and she was escorted, without explanation by either the headmaster or the policemen, by the policemen out of the school .

The little girl was 11 years old. Her name was Sandra Laing.

So began one of the more bizarre and tragic episodes in the brief and inglorious history of apartheid.

The incident, briefly, blazed across the world in headlines and angry comment, but was quite soon dropped into the abyss of oblivion until some ten years later John Pilger made a chilling documentary on "The Search for Sandra Laing" which brilliantly exposed the hypocrisies and cruelties of the race-based fascism of white South African society.

A young Sandra Laing.
A young Sandra Laing.
A markerPiet Retief, South Africa -
Piet Retief, South Africa
[get directions]

Tragic story

The tragic story began in 1955 when, in Piet Retief, a small town in South Africa close to the border with the Kingdom of Swaziland, a girl was born to Abraham and Sannie Laing, a conservative Afrikaner couple. They named her Sandra.

I'm not sure how aware her parents were of the meaning of the name they chose for their daughter, but it was in any case rather appropriately prophetic: the name is a variant of Alexander, which means “defender of humanity.”

The parents were distressed by their daughter's appearance which, in apartheid South Africa, was not promising: she had dark curly hair which curled tighter and tighter as she grew, and her skin was also darker than usual for a “white” child.

In the racial madness of the time the child was “re-classified” coloured and the whisperings of her mother's infidelity with a black man caused embarrassment and pain.

The whisperings were not true – Sandra's appearance was caused by a gene from many generations back and was evidence of the falsity of the myth of “racial purity” propagated by the apartheid regime.

It was agonising for Abraham and Sannie Laing, and completely devastating for Sandra. She had to leave the “white” school where she had been taunted by her fellow-learners and had embarrassed her teachers by her appearance.

Escape

Abraham and Sannie Laing were conservative supporters of the Nationalist Party, devout members of the apartheid-supporting Dutch Reformed Church. They were put into a terrible quandary by their daughter's appearance.

Nevertheless Abraham fought an 18-month legal battle to have his daughter re-classifed as white, a battle which went all the way to the Supreme Court and which was in the end successful, in kind of Pyrrhic victory, in that Sandra's life as a "white" was already destroyed.

Sandra, in spite of being re-classified “white”, was refused entry to most white schools and her education was effectively terminated.

Sandra met and fell in love with a Swazi man, Petrus Zwane, with whom she eloped to Swaziland at the age of 15, in spite of her father's threat to kill both her and himself if she did so. She never saw her father again, although she madce surreptitious visits to her mother, both of them risking her father's anger by doing so.

She had two children by Zwane but he became violent after their third child died in infancy, and she had to leave him.

Sandra went to the East Rand in what is now the province of Gauteng and made a new life with her new hiusband, Johannes Motlaung, with whom she lives a peaceful and happy life, although the shadow of her agonising past still hangs over her.

The story of Sandra Laing is an indictment of racism and porejudice. It shows the futility of categorising people and basing decisions on those categories.

But most of all it shows the cruelty of ideology backed by religion and the way the human spirit will always find a way to break through the barriers.

Once, in the middle of a concrete bridge carrying a motorway across railway lines, a barren expanse of tarmac crossing a profusion of shiny steel rails, I saw a beautiful sunflower glowing golden and beautiful, growing in a small crack. That's how Sandra Laing was - she was human beauty refusing to succumb to the barrenness of ideology.

The video at right was made by the "Special Assignment" team of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and is very moving and beautiful. I encourage readers to watch it. So much of the apartheid past is captured there, and the hope for a more humane future.

Book and film of Sandra's story

A book about Sandra was written by journalist Judith Stone. The book, entitled When She was White (Miramax, 2007) has, in the words of reviewer Rebecca Walker (Washington Post, 27 May 2007) "contributed to a relatively new genre of post-colonial narrative, in which whites and blacks collaborate in exposing the harm done by colonialism."

As Rebecca Walker writes in her review of When She Was White, Sandra's "ultimate triumph may lie in the interest taken in her by a British movie producer who optioned her story, paying her enough money to undergo psychotherapy."

The review ends with this comment: "He also promised to bring Laing's harrowing tale to a wider audience, where it will continue to complicate our ideas about the meaning of skin color. It may even reveal, once and for all, the fallacy of all racial categorizing."

In 2008 director Anthony Fabian made Sandra's story into a film called "Skin", starring Sophie Okonedo as Sandra. It has won numerous awards and does include at least one South African actor, Bongani Masondo.

He has kept his promise, unlike so many in Sandra's life, who let her down so badly.

Dedication

This Hub is dedicated to my fellow-South African Hubber, a courageous and beautiful writer called Cindy Vine.

Cindy left a comment on my Hub about Jan Smuts suggesting I do a Hub about Sandra Laing.

As I had known about this story for many years and was much moved by it, I immediately went to work on it.

So this Hub is dedicated with affection, admiration and thanks, to Cindy Vine.

Copyright Notice

The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2011

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Comments 30 comments

Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

Before the Civil Rights act was passed in the U.S. there were a high concentration of people in Louisiana that were inherently considered white by locals but deemed black due to just having dark skin...these people locally if referred as anything were called Creole or Accadian.;)


De Greek profile image

De Greek 5 years ago from UK

I saw a documentary about this a long time ago and I was so sad about this girl and about the irony of her father's reaction


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands

I had not heard this story. Thank you for bringing it to my notice. :)


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 5 years ago

Very nice! Incredibly moving. It's unimaginable for the father to reject the daughter or any child. Truly amazing story. Great videos! God bless Tony.


Ingenira profile image

Ingenira 5 years ago

An amazing story indeed. I am glad you wrote it. Thank you, Cindy Vine for suggesting it. I have never known a white can look like a black due to genetic reason. And I am at awe how God could use such a special case to create a historical lesson for us.


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 5 years ago from Orange County, California

Tony - A great reminder that in a world where we seem to have come so far, we still have so far to go. I wonder when we (as a whole) will finally get the idea that humanity is about so much more than skin color, race, sexual orientation, or religion. We are all one in God's eyes....Great Hub! I am glad you wrote it. Thank-you.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Bryan - thanks for that info. Never heard the term "Accadian" in this context before.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Dimitris - it is a very sad story, but it seems to be working out quite well now. The ghosts still linger, though.

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Trish - you are most welcome indeed!

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


Mpho Mokobi profile image

Mpho Mokobi 5 years ago from South Africa

Great one Tony. As always you never seize to amaze. I watched the movie when it came out and I also watched the documentary on DSTV a week or two ago. We have come along way as a country. That's why I am on a mission to make a positive contribution. Keep up the good work of informing and educating us. Peace.


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 5 years ago from South Africa

Tony, we have so many of this kind of sad stories.... actually since the beginning of times.... and not only based on race. I know of a father who rejected his daughter because she had flame-red hair – a non existence in his and his wife’s family....

The ‘sin’ (missing the purpose/goal) is prejudice. Will people ever stop doing this? Once part of a specific group we do have adverse judgments and settled opinions without good justification. By the time we realize this we have already harmed many without even realizing it.

Thanks for this touching and thought-provoking hub!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Thank you, Tony, for bringing this to my attention. It is humbling to know there is so much I don't know. In my life, I have wondered about these kind of inhumanities, but have not been personally introduced to anyone involved. I am constantly surprised by how hubpages opens the world to those searching. After viewing the "Skin" trailer, I am compelled to seek out the movie. My initial reaction at the beginning of your very informative piece is how beautiful this little girl is, especially her skin. It is shameful to all humanity to know the responsibility we all bear and that even one person would choose to ignore, turn away or actively participate in the misery caused to those who suffer. It is unfathomable to me that anyone, much less the educated teachers personally involved, could treat this beautiful, innocent child in any other way than any other student in their classroom. It reeks of the "superiority" that perpetrated the Holocaust. You have tackled an ugly subject with great dignity...one that many would like to deny. Prejudice still exists, despite verbiage that denounces it. Change begins with a courageous voice to acknowledge the truth. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his life igniting the world to this reality. The story continues. Your piece does not "sugarcoat" or minimize the tragic consequences that effected the whole life of an innocent. Thank you for bringing it to light in my life.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Micky - thank you so much, my brotherman! You are always so welcome!

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Ingenira - thank you for the kind comment and for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

K. Burns Darling - "we are all one"! Indeed that is so true. Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment. I sincerely appreciate it.

Love and peace

Tony


LillyGrillzit profile image

LillyGrillzit 5 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

Tony, this is a great piece/Hub. Thank you for bringing to light, those things that would like to remain, hidden and swept under the proverbial rug. Thanks for reminding me that justice and societal equality have a long way to go yet. Voted up.


Beverly Stevens profile image

Beverly Stevens 5 years ago from College Station

Thanks for writing this. I have ordered the movie on Netflix.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

I will order this movie. It makes me so sad for that child and family. How cruel humans can be. I'm so glad you wrote about this. I had never heard about it. You do a wonderful service to mankind when you write about events like this, if people will read this, it may heal the divide that still exists in some minds today. Thank you Tony.

Love and Peace


GarnetBird profile image

GarnetBird 5 years ago from Northern California

a Haunting story--my family has a gene from Cherokee blood years ago and 2 members of my family have dark skin--my half sister was called the N Word. She had green/blue eyes but her skin was very dark and olive looking. She looks kind of Latin, but the stigma of being looked down on when she was growing up stayed with her. Great hub.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Mpho - thanks my friend. I appreciate your comment so much. We have indeed come a long way and there is much work still to do! And I too am on that mission! Together we can do it.

Thanks again.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Martie - I appreciate your comment very much, my friend. Prejudice is indeed a big evil in our world. Somehow we keep on and on hurting others with it, and it is so sad and also so avoidable!

Thanks again, friend, ek waardeer jou woorde opreg!

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Amy - thank you for a very thoughtfuol comment. I really appreciate it very much. We do as people have a long, long way to go in accepting each other without conditions or judgements. Such acceptance is the mark of true humanity and we are not fully human, any of us, until all are.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Lilly - thanks for the positive comment. I really appreciate your stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Beverly - I'm so grateful that you stopped by. Gld you liked the Hub.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Ruby - well I do hope that my writing will help to bring about change. That would certainly make it all very worthwhile.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a wonderful comment.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Garnet - such things hurt very deeply. I'm not surprised your sister has struggled with it for a long time.

Prejudice is so harmful to all concerned.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a great comment.

Love and peace

Tony


jandee profile image

jandee 5 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

Tony what a super write! Only thing is I must now have a glass of red to bring my blood pressure down after reading of such prejudice !jandee


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Maxine - this story has haunted me for years. Sandra turned her back on "white society" for ever, but still feels the pain, the intense pain, of separation from her family. The power of ideology is so great that it can even negate a father's love for his child, a love that should be unconditional and powerful itself.

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


cheaptoys profile image

cheaptoys 5 years ago

A sad story indeed


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Cheaptoys - a sad story indeed! Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony

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