Interracial Marriage Under Apartheid

Apartheid Beach -- 1979 © Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Apartheid Beach -- 1979. © Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Officially, there were no interracial marriages under Apartheid, but in reality, the picture was much more complicated.

The Laws

Apartheid rested on the separation of races at every level, and preventing interracial sexual relations was an essential piece of that. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act from 1949 explicitly prevented white people from marrying people of other races, and the Immorality Acts prevented people of different races from having extra-marital sexual relations.

Moreover, the 1950 Group Areas Act prevented people of different races from living in the same neighborhoods, let alone the same house.

Yet despite all of this, there were some interracial marriages, though the law did not see them as interracial, and there were other couples who broke the Immorality Acts and were often jailed or fined for it.

Unofficial Interracial Marriages Under Apartheid

The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was one of the first steps in setting up Apartheid, but the law only criminalized the solemnization of mixed marriages not the marriages themselves. There were a small number of interracial marriages prior to that law, and while there was not much media coverage given to these people during Apartheid, their marriages were not automatically annulled. 

Secondly, the law against mixed marriages did not apply to non-white people, and there were proportionally more interracial marriages between people classified as “native” (or African) and “Coloured” or Indian.

But, while there were in effect "mixed" marriages, the law did not see them as interracial. Racial classification under Apartheid was based not on biology, but on social perception and one’s association.

A woman who married a man of another race was, henceforth, classified as being of his race. Her choice of husband defined her race.

The exception to this was if a white man married a woman of another race. Then he took on her race. His choice had marked him, in the eyes of white Apartheid South Africa, as non-white. Thus, the law did not see these as interracial marriages, but there were marriages between people who prior to the passage of these laws had been considered to be of different races.

Extra-Marital Interracial Relations

Despite the loopholes created by pre-existing mixed marriages and non-white interracial marriages, the Prohibition Against Mixed Marriages and the Immorality Acts were strictly enforced. White people could not marry people of other races, and no interracial couples could engage in extra-marital sexual relations. Nonetheless, intimate and romantic relationships did develop between white and non-white or non-European individuals.

For some individuals, the very fact that interracial relations were so taboo made them appealing, and people engaged in interracial sexual relations as a form of social rebellion or for the excitement it offered.  Interracial relations came with serious risks, though. The police followed people who were suspected in engaging in interracial relations. They raided homes in the night and inspected bed sheets and underwear, confiscating anything that they thought showed evidence of interracial relations.

   Those found guilty of violating the Immorality Acts faced fines, jail time, and social censure.

There were also long-term relationships that had to exist in secret or be camouflaged as other types of relationships. For instance, most domestic workers were African women, and so an interracial couple could camouflage their relations by the man hiring the woman as his maid, but rumors often spread and such couples were also harassed by the police. Any mixed-race children born to the woman would also provide clear evidence of an interracial relationship. 

Post-Apartheid Interracial Marriages

The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages and Immorality Acts were repealed in the mid-1980s during the loosening of Apartheid. In the initial years, interracial couples still faced significant social discrimination from all races, but interracial relations have become more common as the years pass.0  In recent years, couples have reported far fewer social pressures or harassment.