The day 11-year-old SANDRA LAING mixed detergents and bleach in a small bucket she was consumed by one thought: it would probably be easier if I were white.
She covered her face, arms and legs with the toxic mixture. The searing pain was almost unbearable but at least it was different to the pain she experienced as a coloured kid living among whites.
Sandra, now 54, has relived many other heartbreaking incidents since a film has been made about her life as a coloured child born to white parents and her struggle in the ’60s to find a place between white and coloured under the glare of the apartheid spotlight.
The movie, Skin, due for release in SA on 22 January, features South African Ella Ramangwane as a young Sandra and London-based actress Sophie Okonedo as an older Sandra.
“Everything in the movie is true,” Sandra says in her characteristic subdued way. “My dad, Abraham, was just as strict and obstinate as he is portrayed by Sam Neill. But he was very fond of me. And my mom, Sannie, was just as gentle as Alice Krige is in the movie.”
Skin has won several awards - 11 at international film festivals and one at the TriContinental Film Festival in SA. It also scooped the 2009 American Time for Peace Film and Music Award.
She wasn’t always conscious of the fact she was different. Her parents owned a shop in Piet Retief near the Swaziland border and she had several black playmates.
It was only when she went to a school in Piet Retief in the late ’60s and noticed people frowning that she realised she was the odd one out. “That’s when it dawned on me I was different.”
She was 10 when she was summoned to the principal’s office. The school insisted she was black and had to be classified as such. Abraham was furious and immediately started a process to have her officially declared white under the race-classification law of the time.
In the court battle to have Sandra declared white Abraham and Sannie underwent paternity tests to prove they were her parents. Experts gave evidence stating Sandra was a genetic throwback from previous generations.
After they won their case the law was changed to state that race must be based on paternity, not on appearance. But still Sandra didn’t feel white.
“I had more in common with black people. I didn’t fit in anywhere.”
Sandra harbours no anger towards her parents. “I understand why they said I had to choose. They did the best they could. “I’m not bitter.”