WHEN SHE WAS WHITE by Judith Stone


The True Story of a Family Divided by Race
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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 a biography, but a good portrait of the absurdities of apartheid and the grievous harm it inflicted.

Pub Date: April 4th, 2007
ISBN: 0-7868-6898-8
Page count: 304pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2007


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