The True Story of a Medical Oddity and a White Woman Who Became Black

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.

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9 Responses to “The True Story of a Medical Oddity and a White Woman Who Became Black”
  1. Cary Says...

    On August 16, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    > occassionally after adenoidectomies

    Ignoring the occasionally typo, don’t you mean adrenalectomy rather than adenoidectomy?


  2. Clarissa Says...

    On August 17, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    It slightly bothered me that the author seemed to just feel sympathetic for the white women because her skin darkened and she was treated like one of the minorities, and yes it is a truly sad story I agree but I would think you would also comment on how severe the racism was there and how terrible the blacks and “colored” people were treated, its way more “heart breaking” that thousands of people were forced to deal with it throughout their entire lifes


  3. Francesca Fiore Says...

    On August 17, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    To Clarissa, Of course what minorities have went through during apartheid was horrific. This wasn’t an article about that, but rather this one woman and what she went through. The fact that she was “white” and treated this way, even by her own family, demonstrates how insane racism is at its very foundation.


  4. Francesca Fiore Says...

    On August 17, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    To Cary, you are right. I checked my notes and I never once wrote “adenoidectomies” in them, so either I was on complete autopilot or an editor fixed a “typo” for me. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, I’ll get it corrected.


  5. im john Sausage Says...

    On August 30, 2010 at 2:46 am

    im red and i turned blue


  6. wotadvert Says...

    On November 12, 2010 at 6:57 am

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  7. Cuissade Mission Says...

    On December 13, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    I see this happen all the time in the land of fruits and nuts. Tan salon addicts, silicone butt implants, collagen injected lips.

    I agree with Clarissa that although this article wasn’t about racism, it is important to round out the article with commentary relative to the root cause of this woman’s mistreatment.

    Without racism although this may have disturbed her, it would have had a much less traumatic and emotionally debilitating effect.


  8. D Wyatt Says...

    On September 14, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    very diiferent i like it its good


  9. Arvind Virdee Says...

    On December 13, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    lmao, get a dictionary. blacks weren’t a minority of the south african population and never have been. is it so hard to type “oppressed non-whites”


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