The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act

How the Apartheid Law Affected South Africa

A mixed-race couple in South Africa

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The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (no. 55 of 1949) was one of the first pieces of apartheid legislation enacted after the National Party came to power in South Africa in 1948. The Act banned marriages between “Europeans and non-Europeans,” which, in the language of the time, meant that white people could not marry people of other races. It also made it a criminal offense for a marriage officer to perform an interracial marriage ceremony.

Justification and Aims of the Laws

The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act did not, however, prevent other so-called mixed marriages between non-white people. Unlike some other key pieces of apartheid legislation, this act was designed to protect the “purity” of the white race rather than the separation of all races.

Mixed marriages were rare in South Africa before 1949, averaging fewer than 100 per year between 1943 and 1946, but the National Party explicitly legislated to keep non-whites from "infiltrating" the dominant white group by intermarriage. Both the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act of 1957 were based on then-active United States segregation laws. It was not until 1967 that the first U.S. Supreme Court case rejecting miscegenation laws (Loving v. Virginia) was decided.

Apartheid Marriage Law Opposition

While most white South Africans agreed that mixed marriages were undesirable during apartheid, there was opposition to making such marriages illegal. In fact, a similar act had been defeated in the 1930s when the United Party was in power.

It was not that the United Party supported interracial marriages. Most were vehemently opposed to any interracial relations. Led by Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts (1919–1924 and 1939–1948), the United Party thought that the strength of public opinion against such marriages was sufficient for preventing them. They also said there was no need to legislate interracial marriages since so few happened anyway, and as South African sociologist and historian Johnathan Hyslop has reported, some even stated that making such a law insulted white women by suggesting they would marry black men.

Religious Opposition to the Act

The strongest opposition to the act, however, came from the churches. Marriage, many clerics argued, was a matter for God and churches, not the state. One of the key concerns was that the Act declared that any mixed marriages “solemnized” after the Act was passed would be nullified. But how could that work in churches that did not accept divorce? A couple could be divorced in the eyes of the state and married in the eyes of the church.

These arguments were not enough to stop the bill from passing, but a clause was added declaring that if a marriage was entered into in good faith but later determined to be “mixed” then any children born to that marriage would be considered legitimate even though the marriage itself would be annulled.

Why Didn’t the Act Prohibit All Interracial Marriages?

The primary fear driving the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was that poor, working-class white women were marrying people of color. In actual fact, very few were. In the years before the act, only roughly 0.2–0.3% of marriages by Europeans were to people of color, and that number was declining. In 1925 it had been 0.8%, but by 1930 it was 0.4%, and by 1946 it was 0.2%.

The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was designed to "protect" white political and social dominance by preventing a handful of people from blurring the line between white society and everyone else in South Africa. It also showed that the National Party was going to fulfill its promises to protect the white race, unlike its political rival, the United Party, which many thought had been too lax on that issue.

Anything taboo, however, can become attractive, just by virtue of being forbidden. While the Act was rigidly enforced, and the police endeavored to root out all illicit interracial relations, there were always a few people who thought that crossing that line was well worth the risk of detection.

Repeal

By 1977, opposition to these laws was growing in the still white-led South African government, dividing members of the liberal party during the government of Prime Minister John Vorster (Prime Minister from 1966–1978, president from 1978–1979). A total of 260 people were convicted under the law in 1976 alone. Cabinet members were divided; liberal members backed laws offering power-sharing arrangements to nonwhites while others, including Vorster himself, decidedly did not. Apartheid was in its painfully slow decline.

The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, along with the related Immorality Acts which prohibited extra-marital interracial sexual relations, was repealed on June 19, 1985. The set of apartheid laws were not abolished in South Africa until the early 1990s; a democratically elected government was finally established in 1994. 

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