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Skin: Learning Resource by Film Education

Regulating The Population

Before you can start lay down the rules of Apartheid, you are going to have to decide who is white and who is not.  But how are you going to define what a white or black person is, given that the general population demonstrates skin tones of every shade ranging from very dark to very light?  Also, in the mid-20th Century there is no way of testing people’s genes so you are going to have to come up with a way of distinguishing one race from another based on something else. 

Your task is to draft a legal statement that will help those called upon to judge racial determination cases such as the one involving Sandra Laing.  What is a white person?  What is a black person?

To check your answer click on the following link to read more:

One of the first pieces of legislation passed by the new Afrikaner government was the Population Registration Act (1949).  This placed everyone in the country into one of three broad racial categories – European (later White); Coloured; and Native (later Bantu).  A separate designation ‘Asian’ was added in time.  Once categorized, a person would have their racial definition recorded.  Everything people could expect in life in South Africa would flow from this classification – where they could work and live; the kind of education or health care they were entitled to.

As it was not possible to decide scientifically what race a person truly was, then the definitions relied upon a great deal of subjectivity dressed up to sound ‘official’ and legal.  The definitions depended also on ‘social’ factors – whether or not a person was generally perceived to be one race or another.  It was due to the way that Sandra Laing was perceived by other people that the original campaign to have her classified ‘coloured’ was justified.  In a letter to the Inspector of Education of the 30th January 1962, Principal Schwartz of Piet Retief School complained that despite her birth certificate many teachers and parents felt Sandra had to be of mixed race.  He went on to catalogue her physical characteristics including the colour of her eyes, the size of her lips and the impact her presence had had on both white and ‘native’ staff.  The fact that black workers at the school had been ‘surprised’ to see her admitted was possibly among the most conclusive pieces of evidence against her.

In a scene in which Sandra is made to stand before an appeal panel and be judged on her appearance in SKIN, we hear a secretary read out the official definition of a white person.  Compare it to any legal definition you may have come up with. 

“The definition of a 'White person' is a person who in appearance obviously is a White person and who is not generally accepted as a Coloured person; or is generally accepted as a White person and is not in appearance obviously not a White person.”

If it sounds like an absurd way to define people, then you are correct.  It proved unreliable as in the case of Sandra Laing – and there were many other people caught in the same way. Between 1950 and 1966 the ministry of the interior had to investigate thousands of cases involving people classified white, coloured, African, Malay, Indian and Chinese who did not appear to fit their official racial designation. That’s why in 1967 the South African government attempted to tidy things up by stipulating that a person was white if their parents were ‘so classified’.  However, problems still remained: “In the absence of proof that both parents were officially white, the person’s ‘habits, education and speech and deportment in general should be taken into account.’”(Source:Judith Stone: When She Was White page 110.)

Adding to the absurdity of the situation was the Government’s preparedness to bend the rules when it suited them.  Thus important trading partners such as the Japanese were deemed to be ‘honorary whites’ and visiting Afro-Americans were allowed entrance to shops and other public places that were strictly off-limits to non-white South Africans.

To find out more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_Registration_Act

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