Too white to be black, too black to be white

Published Mar 12, 2001


By Buhle Khumalo

Remember one of apartheid's most notorious laws, the Immorality Act? The one that dictated that people could not fall in love or marry across the colour line?

Well, of course, it has now been repealed along with many other draconian laws, thanks to unsung heroines like Regina Brooks.

Brooks, a white woman, was one of the most controversial figures in the late 1950s.

In 1955, she asked to be re-classified as coloured, which would enable her to live among black people and also keep her coloured baby, Thandi. She appealed for reclassification after she was arrested for staying in Orlando, Soweto, with a black man, Sergeant Richard Kumalo.

Brooks has recently been telling her story, giving compelling reasons why she chose to be black and live among black people.

She talks about the pain she endured in order to win her case.

"I was advised not to speak Afrikaans or English because we had to prove that I was black. During the court proceedings, someone interpreted questions to me in Zulu.

"What was hurtful, though, were the insults I heard from white people. I was unable to answer them back, because then they would know that I could speak Afrikaans. But I bled inside.

"They would say things such as: 'Jy is 'n vuil vark, sy is 'n regte kommunis. (You are a dirty pig, she is a real communist)'. "My family also wanted nothing to do with me. One of them told to me stay with my black family.

"I was quite happy with my life and my family, but I would miss my siblings. My brother and one of my sisters were also involved with black people," she said.

Brooks knew from an early age that she wanted to be black.

"My father was a very cruel man. He would tie the Africans up, and hit them, especially when they did not milk the cows on Sundays. I wanted to feel their suffering, to know what was wrong with being black, because they were such humble people.

"I remember telling my sister that one day I was going to marry a black man. I did not want to be white, although I grew up among them and could understand Afrikaans. I was amazed by the support and love I received from the crowds in court.

"Richard had been suspended from work and I was not working. The people demanded our release and collected the bail money outside court from the crowds. We even had some money left to spend after we were released. I won the appeal in 1957," said Brooks.

Later, in 1976, she lived in the coloured township of Eldorado Park where she turned her home into a safe haven for students hunted by police during the 1976 upheavals.

Her friend, Daisy Lesenyego, asked if they could hide at her house. Students slept all over the house, the kitchen and the lounge.

"Coloureds (also) did not like it, me having black people at my house. Some of them were more prejudiced than whites," she said.

Brooks is unhappy at being unable to visit her home in Soweto now that apartheid is gone.

"Then, I was too black to be white, but now I am too white to be black. I am a person without colour. All I ever wanted, then and now, was just to be Regina, a human being and be happy. I can hardly go visit my house in Dube.

"I am too afraid the young ones could kill me. They do not know who I am. And, here in Eldorado, I am too white to be coloured. I wish for the days when I lived in Dube," she said.

"My children were harassed, we were for ever fleeing and hiding. At some point, I was helped by students from St Peters and Father Trevor Huddleston in Rossettenville.

"I would like to thank the students, who really helped me. Father Huddleston intervened and helped me when I wanted to be reclassified," she said.

Brooks was arrested for serving liquor illegally. She was a shebeen queen, selling for a friend, Susan Kelly.

"I had no work and my children had to eat. I could never part with my children, and so I did what I could to maintain them.

"Susan was a good friend. If it was not for her, I would have never have left the abusive relationship I had with Henry Mekela," said Brooks.

"Henry was abusive. If it were today, with all the new laws in place, he would have been arrested. Being a trainee boxer, he was feared.

"So, when he left for Australia, I figured this was my opportunity to escape from him. So, I packed and sent my children to my niece in Durban. When I told him in the letter that I was leaving he ignored me.

"I was never fortunate with men, especially when I started working. They would not like it when people spoke to me or when I interacted with others.

"We have also often had trouble with different business communities.

"They would refuse to serve my friends and me because they were black. We have often eaten at the back of restaurants, or I would buy coffee and we would drink it outside," she said. "Those were the days."

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