Inter-Racial Marriages in South Africa*

Article excerpt

Scholars have examined the rising rate of inter-ethnic and inter-racial marriage from several different theoretical perspectives. While researchers have used these theories to examine intergroup marriage in some Western societies, we do not have comparable data from a broad range of societies. Such data would provide a useful basis for understanding global variability in intergroup interaction and marriage. In this paper we examine the intergroup marriage patterns in a highly segregated and racially conscious society, the country of South Africa. We then examine the relationship between socioeconomic status and inter-group marriage. We also examine inter-group marriages between linguistic groups. Finally, we examine the socioeconomic status of children born to multiracial couples in South Africa, thus projecting the implications of these marriages for the next generation.

A Brief History of Race in South Africa

Although patterns of power and dominance in South African society were always evident, the relationships between people of different races in South Africa were more relaxed throughout the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries than they were in the last half of the twentieth century (Thompson 1990). Several commentators have noted that hundreds of the most prominent Afrikaner white families either intermarried with nonwhites in the early history of South Africa or they have mixed racial ancestry. These relationships were often the result of white bachelors living on frontier farms and seeking the company of nonwhite women. Although such interracial sexual encounters and mixed marriages were confined to a minority, these practices were by no means uncommon in early South Africa (Attwell, 1986).

The incidence of interracial marriages gradually became less common, and in the mid-twentieth century, after the victory of the National party and the subsequent consolidation of white political power in 1948, it became strikingly less common. To eliminate every vestige of black African participation in the central political system and to fulfill Afrikaner ethnic goals as well as white racial goals, the National party passed a series of legislative acts between 1948 and 1960 that had a profound impact on race relations in the country (Thompson 1990). Among the myriad laws which gave expression to apartheid, the policy of separating the different race groups, were the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and the Immorality Act of 1950. These two pieces of legislation had the effect of creating legal boundaries between the races and by making marriage and sexual relations across the color lines illegal.

Two related pieces of legislation, the Population Registration and Group Areas Acts, passed in 1950, also had serious implications for the incidence of marriages across the color line. The Population Registration Act provided the machinery to designate the racial category of every person, but its application sometimes led to the breaking up of homes. Within one family one person could be classified white while another was classified coloured. Under the Group Areas Act, the government divided urban areas into zones where members of only one race could live and work. In many cases areas that had previously been occupied by African blacks were zoned for exclusive white occupation (Thompson 1990).

Under these laws, mixed-race couples suffered humiliation, lack of privacy, and degradation by the police (Du Pre, 1994). Police commonly followed individuals, particularly Africans and coloureds, to see whether they were sleeping with members of other designated races. Couples were awakened in the early hours of the morning for police to examine their identity documents to ensure that sleeping partners were of the same race. Moreover, policemen were rude and uncouth and made insulting remarks. Even whites and nonwhites of the opposite sex who traveled in the same car faced the danger of being followed by the police and being arrested on suspicion of contravening the Immorality Act (Du Pre, 1994). …