Reporter Phillip Martin has the true story of Sandra Laing. She grew up in South Africa in the 1960s and ’70s as the black daughter of white Afrikaners. Her story is now the topic of a movie: Skin premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and is released to a limited number of US theaters on Friday.
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KATY CLARK: It’s been 15 years since South Africa abandoned its brutal system of racial segregation. But a new movie is reminding South Africans of the days when apartheid was the law. The film is called Skin. It’s based on the painful true story of Sandra Laing, a woman with dark skin born to white parents in 1955. Phillip Martin has the story.
PHILLIP MARTIN: Sandra Laing’s skin color didn’t matter in her early years. She and her family lived in a rural part of South Africa. It was only when her parents enrolled her in a white boarding school that her troubles began. Her older brother went to the school but he had lighter skin and was considered white. But Sandra’s skin was darker and she wasn’t welcome. Her father played by actor Sam Neill shows the headmaster documents to prove his daughter’s whiteness.
FATHER: What does this say?
HEADMASTER: A piece of paper is not going to reassure all the parents who call me everyday to complain that there’s a black child at this school. Sandra is a disruption. Sandra does not belong here.
MARTIN: Sandra is then reclassified as colored, the South African term for mixed race, and is forced to leave the school. Her father, a proud Afrikaner, challenges the classification. A 10-year-old Sandra Laing gets brought before government board. They measure her head, her torso, and the thickness of her curly hair. Her father erupts.
FATHER: I’m telling you she’s white. I’m her father. I’m as white as you are. This is her mother. Undeniably white. And Sandra is our daughter. Blood of our blood.
MARTIN: Then a genetics expert testifies on behalf of Sandra’s family.
GENETICS EXPERT: I believe there’s a plausible genetic explanation for Sandra’s appearance. The history of our country is such that many indeed we believe most Afrikaners carry black genes.
JUDGE: Silence. Please go on.
GENETICS EXPERT: So two white-looking parents can contribute enough black genes to produce a child quite a lot darker then themselves.
MARTIN: The South African government accepted the explanation and amended the constitution to recognize the children of two white parents to be white, regardless of appearance. And so Sandra Laing was reclassified as white. But she never returned to the school. At age 16 Sandra fell in love with a black man and ran away. She was then jailed for violating laws against interracial relationships. Her parents won her release and invited her home. But Sandra then pregnant chose to move with her boyfriend to a black township. She then tried to get herself reclassified again as colored. Sandra eventually left her husband and moved with her children to the outskirts of Johannesburg where she worked in a factory. Anthony Fabian, the director of skin, heard about Sandra’s story a few years ago when he was interviewed on the BBC.
ANTHONY FABIAN: I was moved to tears by her story and also very angered by it because it was clear that although Sandra’s white family had prospered Sandra was living still in abject poverty in a township. Didn’t own her home. Could barely afford to clothe or feed her children. And I felt that some kind of reparation needed to be done. And as a filmmaker I had an opportunity not only to tell her story and bring it to the world but also to make a difference at the center of it.
MARTIN: Sandra tried for years to contact her parents but her letters were always returned. Then in 2001, 27 years after she left home, Sandra was reunited with her mother who died soon after. She never saw her father again but in an interview Sandra Laing says she believes he never stopped loving her.
SANDRA LAING: My mother told me that my father died and she wanted my address to send me some money that my father left me. I just felt that my father still loved me which is angry because I left him.
MARTIN: But to this day Laing’s brothers refuse to speak to her. Directory Anthony Fabian says Sandra’s story reaches far beyond South Africa.
FABIAN: It’s about how we treat people who are different from ourselves. In the United States with a bi-racial president the racial identity debate has really come to the fore. And I think it’s very important that we keep that debate present – that we keep talking about these issues because they haven’t gone away.
MARTIN: Skin, the film about Sandra Laing, opens today in New York and Los Angeles. For The World I’m Phillip Martin.
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