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The inspiring story of South Africa’s Sandra Laing

Born November, 26 1995, Sandra Laing is a South African woman who was classified as Coloured by authorities during the apartheid era.

She was classified as Coloured due to her skin colour and hair texture, although she was the child of at least three generations of ancestors who had been regarded as white.

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At the age of 10, she was expelled from her all-white school, and the authorities’ decisions based on her appearance disrupted her family and adult life.

They believed she was Coloured, a term for mixed-race people and as a result, expelled and escorted home by two police officers.

Sandra’s parents fought several legal battles to have her classified as white, based on her documented ancestry through them.

Her father underwent a blood-typing test for paternity in the 1960s, as DNA tests were not yet available.

The results were compatible with his being her biological father, though such tests are extremely imprecise due to the small number of blood types that most people have.

After the publicity, Laing found herself shunned by the white community, although she was re-classified as white again in 1966 when the law was changed to allow a person to be classified as white if both parents are classified as white.

She attended a Coloured boarding school away from her family and became immersed in the non-white world.

Her only friends were the children of black employees.

At the age of 16, Laing eloped to Swaziland with Petrus Zwane, a black South African who spoke Zulu.

She was jailed for three months for illegal border-crossing.

Her father threatened to kill her for the marriage and broke off contact with her and they never met again.

Although she and her husband had two children, who were classified as Coloured, she was threatened with losing them unless she also was classified as Coloured, as a white parent could not raise Coloured children.

At the age of 26, she arranged for the change in race classification officially, although her father had refused permission earlier.

Except for secret trips to see her mother when her father was out of the house, Laing was estranged from her family and struggled to survive economically.

When her parents moved away from Piet Retief, the clandestine visits were no longer possible. Laing lost contact with her family completely.

Laing and her husband separated due to the pressures they were under, and she put their children into government care for a period.

Years later she married again, to Johannes Motloung, a Sotho-speaking man.

They had three children together and she was able to reclaim her first two; all are now grown and with families of their own.

Trying to reconcile with her family in the 1980s, Laing learned that her father had died and her mother Sannie refused to see her.

In 2000 the Johannesburg Times tracked down Laing to learn about her years since the end of apartheid.

The newspaper helped Laing find her mother, who was in a nursing home by that time.

Sandra and Sannie reconciled and shared time together before Sannie’s death in 2001.

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The publicity helped Laing, her husband and family gain new housing.

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