Can a white person become black? This is the true story of a South African housewife with an odd medical condition who did just that at the height of apartheid.
In the 1970s in South Africa, apartheid was in full swing and showed no signs of ever ending. People were officially placed into four categories, whites, blacks, colored, and Indian. Blacks, the most repressed minority, were not citizens, but belonged to self-governing tribes and homelands. As in the segregated South in the US, “Whites Only” signs restricted nonwhites from park benches, restrooms, beaches, pools, buses and a host of everyday public conveniences. There were separate schools and hospitals. To be involved in a sexual relationship outside of your race was a criminal offence, and marriage was prohibited.
In these dark times, to be black was a definite liability and to be white was insurance of a certain status and security. Which makes what happened to Rita Hoefling, a Cape Town housewife, not just a medical oddity, but a true tragedy of cruelty and intolerance.
Rita was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, which in her case, was caused by hyperactive adrenal glands which her doctors removed. It was a success and Mrs. Hoefling made a full recovery. However, something strange began happening not long after. Rita Hoefling began to darken. Her skin was no longer fair, and she instead resembled one of the colored class. This condition, known as Nelson’s Syndrome, happens occasionally after adrenalectomies.
In a society of such overt racism, discrimination began immediately. Kept out of white public areas and even being thrown off a bus, Rita was forced to carry a card explaining her medical condition. This didn’t help everyday racism which prompted Rita to move. The new neighborhood was not receptive to her and her dark skin. They issued a petition of protest.
The most heart-breaking aspect of Rita Hoefling’s story is that it wasn’t just cruelty from anonymous strangers on the street, but also close friends and even family. Her husband, along with her children, left her. Her own mother forbid her from attending her father’s funeral because of potential embarrassment.
Ironically, Rita found solace in the segregated black community. She learned to speak Xhosa. She was befriended by the same people apartheid had kept her from all her life out of fear and ignorance. She was allowed into their homes and their lives.
In 1978, five years after her forced exile from white society, her skin began to lighten. Now, looking like the Caucasian she really was, she tried going back, but that life was gone. Her family had moved on and too much time had passed. She returned to living in Cape Town slums on a meager pension. At 55, she died there of pneumonia.