"I was shunned by my family"

Race classification and racism in South Africa affected not only individuals, but entire families. Many were ripped apart as the arbitrary nature of race classification classified different family members as belonging to different race groups. Read the following heartbreaking story of one woman who was ostracised by her family and community after her skin changed colour due to a brain tumour.

The woman who turned black turns white again

And this is what happened on the wrong side of the colour line...

Special report by Bennie van Delft

A white woman who experienced the agony of apartheid for almost four years because her skin had become dark, has changed back to white again.

"It's grim to be on the wrong side of the colour bar," she said.

She is now accepted as a white person again, but her family still keep her at a distance for fear that she might turn black again.

Mrs Riata Hofling, 46, said she was shocked and disgusted at the way she was treated by whites who thought she was black.

Because of her dark skin, she was ordered off buses, treated as a maid, rudely pushed about and shunned by her family.

She could not attend her own father's funeral because her family did not want to be seen with a black woman at the graveside.

Her only son threatened her with legal action if she tried to contact him again.

Last week her husband divorced her.

Mrs Hoefling admitted she had been rude and impolite towards blacks before her traumatic experience.

But she has vowed never to be rude to them again.

"I now realise only too well what blacks have to go through at the hands of whites," she said.

"I got more courtesy, love and comfort from black people than I ever received from whites.
Those who support apartheid should go and live in the conditions and circumstances experienced on the other side of the colour bar. They would soon change their mind.


Mrs Hoefling's life as a black woman began early in 1974 when her skin gradually became darker.

It was caused by a secretion by a brain tumour.

Mrs Hoefling became aware of it when she tried to clean her "dirty elbows" without success.

Soon afterwards she got her first shock when she was rudely told at a theatre that she was not allowed as she was coloured.

Similar incidents happened afterwards.

She was left standing at shop counters until the whites were served, thrown off buses and sworn at.

"When I moved into another house in Sea Point, a neighbour came over and said she knew I was a coloured, but that she nevertheless like me.

"I was furious when the neighbour pointed to my daughter and said she could see she was a coloured girl.

"It was disgusting to see that, because of the colour of your skin, you were not treated as a human being."

During that time Mrs Hoefling did voluntary work in the black wards of a Cape Town hospital.

She noticed that black patients received inferior treatment to whites.

She got her biggest shock when her father was dying and none of her relatives bothered to inform her.

She arrived too late to see her father alive.

She was bluntly told by relatives that she would not be welcome at [her father's] funeral because they regarded her as black

They said she was an embarrassment to the family.

In June last year, Mrs Hoefling's skin turned back to white overnight.

"I prayed that night that the Lord would show me where in the Bible I could find whether there are two hells and two heavens - one for the blacks and one for the whites.

"I prayed that I would be shown where I belonged, as I was neither black nor white.

"The next morning I saw my skin had turned white, and I knew then that the Lord had wanted me to see how people suffer on the other side of the colour bar."

There and then Mrs Hoefling vowed never to look down on black people again.

"I never dreamed that I would become white again."

Not scared

"I am not scared to become darker once again, because what happens to me is all for a purpose."

Mrs Hoefling said she would always be grateful to her black and coloured friends for their friendship and love.

"Although I virtually lost all my white friends and relatives in South Africa, I acquired a lot of pen-friends all over the world.

"Most of them emphasised that such a thing could only happen in South Africa."

Mrs Hoefling's experiences captured the imagination of at least two Hollywood film companies.

Valhalla Productions in California approached her for the film rights, while a similar offer was received from Carl Foreman, producer of Born Free and High Noon.

Mrs Hoefling declined the offers for her daughter's sake.

"I felt it was my duty to stay with my daughter until she had finished her matric. My husband at that stage already left me."

That was towards the end of last year.

Today Mrs Hoefling is staying alone in a one-bedroom flat with a bed and a wardrobe as her only furniture.

Her daughter left her earlier this year, two days after celebrating her 18th birthday.

- "The woman who turned black turns white again", Sunday Times, May 20, 1979


back to the Race Classification Board memorial page

"Even the Cango Caves had a separate entrance for black people."
Vincent Kolbe on Race Classification
Apartheid signs, Mossel Bay
Picture: © Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners will have the chance to interact with information from clauses of the Population Registration Act of 1950 as well as from various legal records associated with two cases of people appealing for reclassification.

Lesson plan (1.09MB)
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Artwork Photo Gallery
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Audio stories of the heartbreak caused
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