When She Was White: The Story of Sandra Laing: Race and Reconciliation in South Africa

When She Was White: The Story of Sandra Laing: Race and Reconciliation in South Africa

by Judith Stone
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


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."

As a teenager, Sandra eloped with a black man, and her parents disowned her. The young woman, who had only known the privileged world of the whites, chose to begin again in a poor, rural, all-black township, where life was a desperate, day-to-day struggle against poverty, illness, and a legal system designed to enslave.

In this remarkable narrative, veteran journalist and author Judith Stone takes us on her own eye-opening journey as she and Sandra explore the mysteries of Sandra's past and piece together the fractured life of one of apartheid's many victims. As the devastating circumstances of Sandra's life are revealed, Stone comes to understand and admire her for the flawed -- yet enduring -- survivor she is.

Editorial Reviews

Rebecca Walker
Stone, a perceptive essayist and contributing editor of O, Oprah's magazine, entered Laing's life as both a biographer and an unwitting facilitator of her recovery. Stone encouraged Laing to unearth the buried shards of her shattered existence, and consulted with experts on trauma and loss to enhance her understanding of Laing's erratic memory and self-sabotaging behavior. With When She Was White, Stone has contributed to a relatively new genre of postcolonial narrative, in which whites and blacks collaborate in exposing the harm done by colonialism.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

The Sandra Laing case made international news as an example of South Africa's apartheid at its nuttiest, when, in 1966, the nine-year-old Laing, who was significantly darker than her white-skinned parents, was reclassified as Coloured and expelled from the white school she was attending. At 11, she was classified white again, and at 26, through her own efforts, became Coloured again. Laing had a hard life, especially after she ran away from home at 14 with the first of a succession of married black men. Although an anti-apartheid poster child outside of South Africa, Laing's memory so often fails her that Stone's book becomes an exercise in recovered memory, coupled with a reliance upon the remote expertise of various "lawyers, historians, geneticists, sociologists, psychologists, and some of the South-African journalists who'd covered her story over the years." Stone is at her most successful in eliciting recollections of misery and family strife. She fills in the blanks with "official documents, government records, newspaper archives, and interviews" with Laing's friends, family and other community members. But Laing is, unfortunately, too frail a vessel upon which to hang all this, along with digressive minilectures on genetics, history, anthropology and economics. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
O magazine contributing editor Stone tries to piece together the story of a South African woman whose racial classification under apartheid was changed three times. Born in 1955 to Afrikaner parents who repeatedly swore that she was their biological child, Sandra Laing was raised as white until the age of ten, when she was sent home from boarding school because she appeared to be of mixed blood. Her father fought her reclassification as "Coloured" under the country's Population Registration Act and succeeded in having her reclassified as "White" when she was 11. But at 15, Laing ran away with Petrus Zwane, a married, 25-year-old black man who took her to Swaziland. The text shows her to be unable or unwilling to articulate her motives for leaving home, though Stone tried hard to elicit them and speculates that fear of her harsh, unaffectionate, pro-apartheid father may have been one. Although life in Swaziland was hard, Laing found acceptance and affection there, especially from Petrus's mother. She left Petrus when he became abusive, but stayed in the black community and asked to be reclassified as Coloured so that she would not risk losing her children. She lived with other black men and had more children, giving up three of them to the welfare system for several years when she was unable to care for them. When Stone contacted her, she was in her 40s and had from time to time been filmed and interviewed by journalists-to the chagrin of her white brothers and parents. The author had a hard time getting coherent information from Laing, who provided contradictory versions of significant events and relationships in her life, as well as her feelings about them. Frustratingly sketchy as abiography, but a good portrait of the absurdities of apartheid and the grievous harm it inflicted.

Product Details

Miramax Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)
Age Range:
13 Years

Read an Excerpt

When She Was White

By Judith Stone


Copyright © 2007 Judith Stone
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7868-6898-8

Chapter One


SANDRA LAING WAS TEN WHEN THE POLICE TOOK HER away. Not long after the teacher led morning prayers, the principal sent a boy to say that Sandra was wanted immediately. She sat quietly doing sums, one of the few classroom tasks that brought her peace or pleasure. She liked the tidiness and predictability of numbers.

The other children, sitting in pairs, giggled and whispered as Sandra rose from the little two-person desk she shared with no one and left without looking at them. The air was mild, with the hint of bite that marks a South African summer easing into autumn. Sandra crossed a central courtyard to the administrative wing of Piet Retief Laerskool Primary, a public elementary school for white children, most of them Afrikaners, descendants of the nation's first white settlers. A secretary pointed Sandra toward the door of Principal J. P. Schwartz's office. She knocked and entered.

The principal sat at his desk as usual, but behind him stood two khaki-uniformed policemen, a thin one and a wide one, their arms crossed. The sight of them sped the little girl's heart. "Sandra," Schwartz said in Afrikaans, "Ek is bevrees jy sal ons moet verlaat. I'm afraid you're going to have to leave us. Go with theseofficers to fetch your things. They will take you home." She wondered what she could have done that was bad enough to get her expelled. She hadn't socked anyone in donkey's years, or accused the other children of stealing her sweets, or complained of being called ugly names. Was it because she wet the bed and vomited nearly every night? Could the cops toss you in the chokey for that? "Why must I leave?" she asked Schwartz, surprised at the sound of her own voice. Usually when he summoned her, she'd look at the floor and pretend to be a tree. But the appearance of policemen suggested discipline of a disturbing new order and made her bold. "You will have to ask your father," the principal said. "Now please go with these gentlemen."

The thin policeman gently touched her shoulder. "Come," he said. She trotted after the men, a small but solid girl in summer uniform, a skirt and tunic of muted green. Recalling that day, Sandra thinks she might have stared at the stitching in the leather holsters at the officers' waists, although she's not absolutely certain they wore guns. She wanted her brother Leon, but he was at the high school, two miles away. And what could he do if he saw his little sister being hauled off by the polisie, except burn with shame? What would her parents say? Her mouth soured and she grew ill picturing her father's face when the officers deposited her at his doorstep. But then, as she'd taught herself to do whenever something was too painful or terrifying to think about, she willed a sort of thick, soft humming to fill her ears, the sound fog would make if it sang. She'd hit on that technique not long after she arrived at school and the trouble started. When her worries seemed so loud in her head that she was sure people could hear them grinding like a gearbox, the fog seemed to cool and blunt her hot, sharp thoughts. Her breathing slowed.

The policemen escorted her out the front gate of the school, beneath the painted sign that read Arbeid Oorwin-Work Conquers-and to their car. "Why am I being kicked out?" Sandra asked the officers, addressing their boots. "We don't know," the thin one said. "We've just been told to take you home. Your pa can explain."

Slowly they drove the mile or so to the hostel, the dormitory for boarding students. The only witnesses to their short journey were a few black gardeners tending yards on a quiet street in Piet Retief, a small farming and timber community two hundred miles southeast of Johannesburg. The town was named in honor of a nineteenth-century Afrikaner pioneer murdered, Sandra's teacher told the children, by double-crossing Zulu barbarians. A proper name for a proper verkrampte, conservative, Afrikaner enclave. It was March 10, 1966. The week before, John Lennon had declared the Beatles more popular than Jesus, and their records would soon be banned in South Africa. On Robben Island, in the sea off Cape Town, Nelson Mandela was serving the second year of a life sentence for sabotage. These matters lay as far from Sandra's knowing, she says, as the back of the moon. She was also unaware of the fact that for more than four years, Principal Schwartz and a determined group of teachers, parents, and public officials had worked hard to force Sandra's removal from school, while her mother and father had struggled to prevent it.

The teacher in charge of boarding students, Johannes Van Tonder, tall and soldier-straight, waited at the front door of the hostel. The sight of him-his scowl, the stick he always carried-twisted Sandra's insides. He clearly despised her, but she wasn't entirely sure why. She knew, and she didn't know-that's what the fog in her head was good for. He marched her to the unadorned room she shared with nine other little girls and watched while she packed the suitcase stowed in her closet. Later that day, Van Tonder told Sandra's two close friends, Emilia and Elize, that she'd left school for good, but he never told them the reason.

The policemen flanked Sandra on the front seat of their sedan. They didn't say a word during the forty-minute ride up the narrow road to Panbult, where her father ran one of two general stores he and his wife owned in the southeastern corner of what is now the province of Mpumalanga, then the Eastern Transvaal. The familiar route cut through the heart of the highveld, South Africa's fertile central plateau, past fields of wheat and corn, rolling pastures where cows grazed, dirt-road turnoffs that led to coal mines, and vast plantations of pine, eucalyptus, and acacia trees. In occasional clearings ringed by piles of downed logs, big hive-shaped ovens roasted wood into charcoal.

Panbult was even smaller than Piet Retief: a few concrete grain silos, a railroad siding where coal was transferred from mine trucks to freight trains, a sawmill, a petrol station, and her father's tin-roofed general store. Abraham must have spotted the police car that day through the door of the shop. By the time Sandra slid out across the plastic-covered seat of the sedan, he'd planted himself on the wooden front stoep with his legs apart and his fists on his hips. Abraham Laing, forty-nine then, compact and balding, looked pained but not surprised to see the police delivering his daughter, like a man who opens a newspaper to find grim tidings he expected but hoped would never come. "Are you Abraham Laing?" one policeman asked. Sandra's father nodded. She went to him and he put an arm around her. "It's all right, my skat," he said. Then he gave those policemen hell. "They needed two big men to shift a tiny child? Was she too much for one? The devil take you! Get out! Voetsek!" As if they were dogs. Abraham's temper, which usually unsettled Sandra, was a balm that day. He wasn't angry at her, but at them.

"Man, pull yourself together," the officer said calmly. "We're just doing what we were told. Call the school inspector if you're unhappy."

"You can be sure I will," Abraham Laing shouted. The policemen drove off.

"Papa," Sandra said, "why can't I go to school anymore?" They watched the police car until it was a speck. Abraham was silent. She asked again. Usually, such persistence would earn a scolding. This time, her father began to weep, digging his fingers into Sandra's shoulder. She had never seen him cry before, and this response was more alarming than yelling would have been. Still, he didn't answer.

He told her to hop into the bakkie, the pickup, parked in front of the shop, and called to his black helper to lock up early for lunch. Abraham and Sandra headed down the reddish dirt road that led through grassland and stands of pine to their home in Brereton Park, twelve miles away, where Sandra's mother, Sannie Laing, kept the family's other general store. The road was empty except for the occasional coal or timber truck raising clouds of russet dust.

Brereton Park, designated by the government a white area like Piet Retief and Panbult, was an isolated crossroads on the crest of a gentle hill, where the dirt road from Panbult intersected another, became a gravel driveway, then dwindled to a rutted track with a grass strip down the middle. The whole place consisted of the Laing's thatch-roofed stone house, shielded from the road by a row of acacia trees, and their shop, shaded by eucalyptus and jacaranda, just a few yards away across the grassy track. Brereton Park General Dealers, a combination store, post office, and petrol station, served Driefontein, a black township three miles farther along the track. Behind the shop lay an open field where cows browsed, white tickbirds riding their backs, and beyond that, commercial pine forests owned by timber companies and maintained by black laborers. The Laings were the only white family for miles around: Sannie and Abraham, Sandra, her brother Leon, who was almost seven years older than she, and her new little brother Adriaan, four months old.

Sannie Laing, forty-five, ran out of the shop, her good face red, alarmed to see her husband home so early in the day. Adriaan was in the house with Nora, the black nanny who had cared for Sandra since she was a baby. "What is it, Abraham?" Sannie Laing said. "What has happened?" Sandra thought she saw a secret message fly between them. "Ma," Sandra said, fitting herself to the curve of her mother's warm side, "why must I come home? Why can't I go to school?" Sannie Laing, aproned and ample, began to weep, as her husband had. She wouldn't answer Sandra either, only cried and cried. The child thought how horrible her crime must be if her father and mother couldn't bear to utter the words for it.

Sandra Laing says today that her parents never told her why she was kicked out of school. Eventually she learned what happened, but she doesn't remember when or how she pieced together the details of the events that transformed her life. It bothers her that she can't reconstruct the precise moment she became conscious of her changed fate. She's dead certain, however, that on the day the police brought her home from Piet Retief Primary and for nearly two years after that, while she was at the center of a legal and political battle followed closely by the South African and international press, she convinced herself she'd been expelled from school for punching the arms of classmates who taunted her relentlessly.

Later, Sandra came to understand that she'd been forced to leave Piet Retief Primary because only white children were legally allowed to attend the school, and the government of South Africa had officially declared her to be no longer white.

The Population Registration Act of 1950 required that the Department of the Census assign everyone in South Africa to one of three racial categories: European, changed in 1960 to White, for the heirs of the Dutch, French, German, and, later, English who colonized the country; Coloured, for people of mixed race, a complex grouping with seven subdesignations, one of which, Asian (also referred to as Indian), later became a fourth category; and Native (later Bantu), for the black majority, with nine subdivisions based on historical tribal affiliations. Classification was essential for assuring segregation and white supremacy, the explicit goals of apartheid-the word means "apartness" in Afrikaans-the most restrictive system of legalized racial discrimination in recent history. Imposed by the Afrikaner-led National Party government in 1948, apartheid was a harsher and more pervasive form of the social and political system that had prevailed since white colonists first claimed South Africa in the mid-seventeenth century and subjugated the original inhabitants.

Each racial classification opened a door into a very different existence. Under apartheid, South Africa's white minority-about 3.5 million citizens in 1966-controlled the lives of some 15 million disenfranchised and dispossessed nonwhites, determining where they lived and worked, how well they ate, whom they could marry, when and where they might travel, whether they received decent or substandard-or any-schooling and health care, and, in essence, the age at which they were likely to expire.

Since both of Sandra Laing's parents were white, she'd been propelled at birth through the portals of white privilege and guaranteed the relatively pleasant and comfortable life of a middle-class Afrikaner child. Her birth certificate records the date she entered the world, November 26, 1955; her Christian name, Susanna Magrietha, the same as her mother's; her sex; and her color: Blanke, White.

But because of her frizzy hair and light brown skin, variously described in newspapers as toffee, tawny, honey, and sallow, the director of the Census had officially changed Sandra's classification to coloured. Now she couldn't legally enter a restaurant or movie theater with her parents or brothers; share a bus seat, a park bench, or a church pew; swim at the same beach, visit the same clinic, or be buried in the same cemetery. According to the letter of the law, she could no longer live with her white family, except as a servant.


Excerpted from When She Was White by Judith Stone Copyright © 2007 by Judith Stone. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Judith Stone is a contributing editor at O, The Oprah magazine, and the author of Light Elements. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Newsday, Elle, and Vogue, among other publications. Judith has also appeared on national television and extensive radio interviews.

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