Skin Deep: The Story of Sandra Laing

Skin Deep: The Story of Sandra Laing (47:00)
Item# 41353

An emotional journey through the abyss of the apartheid era, this program explores the cruel realities and implications of institutionalized racial categorization. Viewers learn the story of Sandra Laing, who, although born to white Afrikaner parents, developed the skin color and facial features of a black African through a quirk of genetics. By the time she was a teenager, Sandra had been officially designated as “colored,” cut off from her family, and expelled from white society. Marked by imprisonment and domestic abuse as well as some semblance of reconciliation and closure, Laing’s saga inspires not only outrage but also far-reaching questions about racial identity and classification. (47 minutes)

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Segments in this Video - (34)

1. 1950s South Africa: Apartheid (01:56)
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Under South Africa's system of apartheid everyone was classified as belonging to one race only. Sandra Laing, born to white parents, appeared mixed race. She and her family were torn apart by apartheid.

2. Life in Brereton Park South Africa (01:35)

Sandra Laing visits the home in rural Northeastern South Africa where her parents were shopkeepers. home movies as a ordinary and happy appearing family. There are no other Whites in the area and for a time Sandra is oblivious to the issue of race.

3. Sandra Goes to Boarding School (00:57)

In 1962 at the age of six, Sandra is sent to the town of Piet Retief to join her older brother at a South African boarding school. Anco Steyn, a contemporary of Sandra's remembers the mood of the school and the reaction to her arrival there.

4. Colliding with South Africa's Racist Reality (01:30)

Scenes from the feature film portrayal of her life, "Skin" offer a glimpse into Sandra Laing's arrival at boarding school--how her classmates react and her mother's attempts to support her.

5. Sandra Laing's School Experience During Apartheid (00:59)

Anco Steyn, a contemporary of Sandra Laing's from school remembers the kids "picking on her." Sandra remembers being alone most of the time and having a single friend, Elise.

6. Sandra Laing Reclassified: Black (01:02)

Teachers at the boarding school Sandra Laing attended campaign for 4 years to have her excluded from the school and finally succeed in 1966. The South African government reclassifies Sandra as "colored or mixed race."

7. Sandra Laing Expelled for Being Black (00:54)

After she was reclassified as "colored," Sandra was summoned to the school's office where two policemen removed her from the school. Her brother, who appeared more White, was allowed to stay.

8. Reclassification During Apartheid (00:52)

Between 1950 and 1989 roughly 2000 people a year were reclassified by race. The reclassification lists are read at parliament; no Whites were reclassified as Black or vice versa.

9. International Attention to Sandra Laing (01:22)

Sandra's story received national and international attention. More than 40 years later, neighbors of the Laings remember the brutal childhood Sandra endured, and the helplessness with which they watched it unfold.

10. Awareness of Race (00:59)

Sandra Laing recalls that she was not much aware of race as a young child, but as she got older came to realize she was not the same color as her parents.

11. Reclassification: Marital Fidelity in Question (01:29)

After her reclassification, Sandra Laing's family could no longer ignore the issue of her skin color. Sandra recalls her parents fighting during that time, and that her mother seemed suicidal.

12. Common Genetic Explanation (01:24)

Geneticist Himla Soodyall explains that an African ancestor in either of her parent's history could be responsible for Sandra Laing's dark skin color. One in ten White South Africans has at least one African ancestor.

13. Sandra Laing's Father: Question of Paternity (01:09)

Sandra Laing believes her father loved her. She says he wanted her to have a good life. Segments of the feature film about Sandra's life show a glimpse of the hardship the family endured defending Sandra as White.

14. Population Registration Act: Reclassified Again (00:56)

One year later, her father's campaign to have Sandra Laing reclassified to White succeeds. The South African government changed the law to say that children must be classified the same race as their parents.

15. Petrus Zwane (01:15)

At age 14 Sandra Laing befriends 34 year-old Petrus Zwane, from whom her mother purchased produce for their trading store. Sandra's father is angry at the relationship because he "didn't like Black people."

16. Runaway Elopement: No Going Back (01:24)

A staff at the Apartheid Museum reflects on the ramifications of Sandra's choice to marry a Black man, Petrus Zwane. Journalist Karien van der Merwe explains that Sandra really never had an option to live with a White identity.

17. Laing Sentenced to Prison (01:08)

Petrus Zwane and Sandra Laing escape across the border to Swaziland, but are arrested for illegal entry and sent back to prison in South Africa. Sandra visits Zwane's mother, now 90, with whom she remains very close.

18. Sandra Laing Disowned by Parents (01:12)

Zwane's mother tells the Laing's that their daughter has been arrested. They refuse to go to her and tell Petrus's mother she must take care of Sandra. Sandra never sees her father again.

19. Apartheid: Stronger than Love (00:59)

Journalist Karien van der Merwe reflects on Sandra Laing's father's choice to disown his daughter. He succumbed to the pressure of apartheid and his own sense of humiliation betrayal after all he had done.

20. Sandra's Journey Through the Black South African Experience (01:15)

Sandra and her mother in law reflect on Sandra's dramatic change in lifestyle. The young bride did not know how to cook or carry wood and her mother in law had to show her the ropes.

21. Group Areas Act: Forced Removal (01:11)

During South African apartheid more than 50 million Black South Africans, were driven from their homes, including Sandra Laing and and Petrus Zwane. They resettled 30 miles away.

22. Group Areas Act: Life in the Resettlement Camp (01:21)

South African photographer David Goldblatt reflects on the experience of visiting and photographing Sandra Laing, and family in the resettlement camp.

23. Sandra Laing: Married Life (01:18)

Sandra takes her first son to visit her mother, who tells her she must not come back. Sandra and Zwane run a general store where locals gathered.

24. Sandra Laing's Marriage to Zwane Deteriorates (01:05)

Afraid that her children might be taken from her, Sandra applies to be reclassified as colored, but authorities refuse because she is underage and her father won't consent. Sandra takes her children and leaves the abusive Zwane.

25. Sandra Laing Starts Over (01:43)

In 1979 Sandra goes to live in an urban township east of Johannesburg, South Africa among the Black urban poor. She supports herself cleaning houses and caring for other people's children.

26. Sandra Laing Loses Her Children (01:41)

Sandra's children are taken into foster care after she enters the hospital with suspected cancer. Black agitation against apartheid is gathering force. Sandra gets her first job in a cosmetics factory.

27. Sandra Laing's Minor Celebrity (00:60)

Sandra returns to the cosmetics factory where she worked during the time she was separated from her children.

28. Sandra Laing Meets Husband Johannes Motloung (00:60)

Sandra regains stability with Johannes Motloung. They rent a house and things begin to improve.

29. Sandra Laing Reunited with Children (01:13)

Ten years after they were taken from her Sandra's children can come home--she now has 2 more children. Her fortunes continue to improve up to and including the moment a British filmmaker decides to do a story about her life.

30. Sandra Laing Home at Last (01:13)

Filmmaker Anthony Fabian uses his advance on the film to give Sandra her own home. He explains how one must act when one learns of a story like Sandra's.

31. Sandra's Black Family (01:30)

Sandra now enjoys a loving relationship with extended family. She has 7 grandchildren and 4 of her 5 children are married. Her father died in 1988 and his loss is a source of unresolved grief in her life.

32. Sandra is Reunited with her Mother (02:00)

Sandra relocates her mother in 2001. Her brothers wont meet with or acknowledge Sandra. Filmmaker Anthony Fabian considers the choices made by Sandra and her brothers.

33. Sandra Laing: Sharing her Legacy (04:10)

Sandra's shares her story with a racially mixed class of South African Students. She responds to a students inquiry about the end of apartheid in 1994, saying that when apartheid ended, "It was too late for me."

34. Lessons and Legacy of Sandra Laing's Life (01:40)

A student shares her insightful response to her own father's attitude that the brutality of apartheid should be forgotten. Sandra Laing has built a family for herself in a society that was ravaged by racial attitudes.

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