In the Mix
The Big Issue South Africa
At one time it would have been illegal for *Catheryne and *Phillip Sampson to be married. 31-year old Catheryne is white and 32-year-old Phillip is of Indian extraction but would rather be called South African. During apartheid the Mixed Marriages Act (1949) prohibited marriages between white people and people of other races.
And the Immorality Amendment Act (1950) made adultery, attempted adultery and extra-marital sex between black and white people a crime.
Although times have changed and Catheryne and Phillip can no longer be arrested for being together, some people still find it odd for them to be in a relationship.
The couple, who have a one-year-old son, recently moved from Johannesburg to Claremont in Cape Town, because Phillip landed a job as an IT-consultant in the Mother City. Catheryne, who studied psychology, is on a 'mom sabbatical'. While Phillip was raised by a tolerant family in KwaZulu-Natal, Catheryne spent her youth in a staunchly conservative Afrikaner community in Witbank in Mpumalanga, where she was told that blacks were rapists and murderers.
"We met in Pretoria in 1996 where we worked together," says Catheryne. "We became friends. I remember thinking 'if only he was white, I would definitely have gone for him'. But after a few months I realised that there really weren't any differences between us. I didn't see his colour anymore."
Catheryne's parents couldn't see past Phillip's pigmentation. "Phillip's family welcomed me with open arms, but my parents were very, very, opposed to our relationship," says Catheryne. "My father told me I was committing a sin."
Even Catheryne's friends vanished. Says Catheryne: "One couple not only decided to end our friendship, but also that they didn't want to live in a country where black people were marrying white people. They packed their bags and moved to Australia. And one of my university friends said to me 'if you look at nature, you don't see a springbok mixing with a zebra. Nature intended us to be segregated'."
Furthermore, strangers are sometimes 'openly revolted' with the sight of the two of them together. Phillip says: "It is mostly being stared at and receiving bad service in restaurants. But it goes further...we once had a neighbour who broke our dog's leg. He didn't know us. We were just a black face and a white face. And Catheryne even got spat at in a supermarket by a white man who said she was a disgrace to the race."
The couple says there is a lot of emotional turmoil attached to these prejudices. "Previously the comments used to bug us," says Phillip. "We even discussed breaking up. But now we don't make it our issue anymore, it is their issue."
Despite this, or maybe because of it, the couple does have 'golden rules' to make being a mixed couple easier. They never walk hand in hand in the street or show other forms of affection in public.
Aside from the obstacles they face as a mixed race couple, they are very happy they made the decision to stay together. "Our relationship has huge benefits as well," says Catheryne. "I learned to make curry and went to a traditional Indian marriage. People often think that you need to give up your own culture when marrying somebody from a different background. But I kept my own identity and enriched myself with this new culture."
Edmund Thwaites and Atholl Hay, a gay mixed couple, also feel that being different is the strength of their relationship. Atholl was raised in a sophisticated white family in Pietermaritzburg where they would ring a bell to call the "houseboy". His parents didn't support the apartheid government but accepted that it was just the way it was.
Edmund lived in Claremont in Cape Town, but was forced to move to Manenberg on the Cape Flats when he was 11 because his family was coloured. He participated in the protests for free education and ended up working at a shoe factory when he was 14. The hype around the movie Saturday Night Fever was his salvation. During a disco dance competition, his talent was discovered and his dancing career then took off. Together with Atholl he now runs Jikeleza, a dance project for 120 children and teenagers in the townships of Imizamo Yethu and Hangberg in Hout Bay.
"We are so different, it is amazing we got together," says 45-year-old Atholl who met 48-year old Edmund in 1996. "He is black, I am white, he's disorganised, I am organised; we complete each other in every way."
Although one might expect that being a gay interracial couple is a bit too much for conservative South Africans, the couple haven't really had a lot of negative experiences yet. "Because we are two guys, people might assume we are just friends," cites Atholl. "We don't show in public that we are together. You know you will get punched in the face when you are holding hands."
Apart from that, Edmund says it is sometimes still difficult to make contact with white South African gays."I don't know if it is racism, but when I talk to South Africans they aren't really interested in me, while foreign white gays love the black velvet.
"The gay scene is still really segregated," continues Edmund. "And if you encounter gay mixed couples, it is often an older white man who is taking care of a black or coloured boy. Those relationships aren't equal like ours."
Edmund and Atholl are an exception in their not being taunted. According to Frans Cronje of the Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg, interracial couples often experience some sort of harassment in public places. "Luckily, most of the taunting is verbal and not physical. And although this is awful, it is already quite a change from 20 years ago when mixed couples were in grave danger while walking on the street."
Although since 1985, it is no longer officially forbidden to mix, recent research by the Child Youth and Family Development Department of the Human Sciences Research Council, showed that same race-marriages are still the rule. Of South Africans under 35, only between 1 and 4% are involved in an interracial marriage. The research looked at matches between whites, Asians, Africans and coloureds.
"Coloureds are the most likely to marry outside their group, while Africans stick together," says professor Yaw Amoateng, the sociologist who headed the research team." According to Amoateng, marriages between coloured men and African women are the most common. White women married to African men and African men married to Asian women are the least common combinations.
Obed, 38, a black photographer, and Leonora Zilwa, 37 (pictured together on opposite page), who is a white public affairs manager to Cape Town's mayor, don't see themselves as a rarity. "I think even the terms mixed couple and mixed child are racist," says Leonora.
The couple has been together for nine years. They married in 1999 at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, under the balcony where the slaves were previously put on trial. Obed wore a Xhosa skirt, Leonora a traditional white dress and the bridesmaid wore a sari.
As with Phillip and Catheryne, Obed and Leonora receive their fair share of the staring and comments. One typical display of disagreement with their relationship was that it was impossible to find a house together. Says Obed: "Every time they would see me, we were turned away. They would tell us the place was taken but the next day you would see it advertised in the newspaper again."
Afrikaners have also called Leonora a white hoer and addressed Obed as kaffir. Walking hand in hand through Leonora's hometown of Evander in Mpumalanga highly offended the community. But the remarks aren't restricted to whites. While strolling through the township of Nyanga on the Cape Flats where Obed grew up, some black people used to pass comment on the couple. Now they are used to Leonora being there.
"There are levels of racism on both sides, white and black," says Leonora. "But I also think that curiosity mustn't be confused with racism. There is a difference between staring and glaring. Especially when one of us walks around with our four-year old daughter - we attract a lot of curious people."
Obed and Leonora try to confront both the curious and racist people. "I think that curiosity and racism rubs off if you talk about it," says Leonora. "And I can say that the negative stares are becoming less and less." Obed: "A lot of people are afraid of the unknown. It helps to talk about it and show them that there are a lot of similarities between us."
The couple also often receives positive reactions. Obed says: "A guy that sells fruit in town was shouting to sell his goods. When we walked past him holding hands he screamed joyfully 'look at this! Mandela has fixed things!' Some people see us as role models."
There are more positive findings. According to Amoateng, mainly younger South Africans are involved in interracial marriages. "Age makes a difference as far as racial integration is concerned. We expect that this trend will continue, which means that the amount of mixed couples will grow. I find that very encouraging."
Margie Murcott, 21, who has been dating Prince Mbekwa, a 28-year-old systems developer, is part of this new generation. Both she and Prince were reared with a non-racial ideology and spent part of their youth in exile. Prince is an African and Margie has a white father and an Indian mother. In her family there are four mixed married couples.
"It was very difficult for my parents to have a relationship," says Margie, who is completing a Masters in City Development. "They weren't able to go to restaurants together or walk down the street because they were afraid they would get arrested. They needed to be careful because my mother's family had been identified by the security police as communist, so they [the police] were keeping a close eye on them."
Her parents' relationship played a large role in her family going into exile. Soon after former president Nelson Mandela was released, they returned to South Africa. "I ended up in a predominantly white class at school. I remember we had a discussion about interracial couples. I was told that it was a selfish thing to do because children will suffer. I was so offended. Even my grandmother said to my dad that he shouldn't have children because they would struggle with it. But to me it has only enriched my life. I don't feel or see those boundaries where other people see them."
When the two met four years ago, they didn't discuss the fact that they were entering a mixed relationship. "I think I was more thrilled that I had just met somebody I could relate to," says Prince. Despite their different colours, their friends and family didn't give them negative responses. "My friends have been very encouraging and supportive," says Prince. "And my mother was really happy that I brought home a black man, because all my sisters date white guys," laughs Margie.
The pair says they became aware of their relationship only by the reaction of strangers. "People give you a double take while you are walking down the street. And we also get comments like 'she is stealing our man', mostly coming from black women," says Prince.
But, like Obed and Leonora, the couple don't avoid certain places. They say it helps to live in Observatory in Cape Town, which is a relaxed neighbourhood. All the couples agree that the response they receive depends largely on the city and neighbourhood they are in. They name Pretoria as one of the worst places to walk around as a mixed couple, followed by the northern suburbs of Cape Town. However, they say the southern suburbs of Cape Town are quite tolerant.
Ten years into South Africa's democracy, the key question is still how to shed the boundaries and obtain more integration. Amoateng thinks that the feeling of economic security is important for social integration. "Once people feel secure about their economic position you will see liberalising tendencies as well. When there is an economic depression, people tend to stay put and relate to their own group, because that's where they feel safe."
Cronje is of the opinion that marriages echo socio-economic groups and that if the power gap between black and white decreases, this will result in more interracial relationships. "It is not that blacks and whites aren't marrying because they don't like each other," says Cronje. "It is more that they still live segregated and don't know enough about each other's culture."
The couples all insist that it is important to learn about each other's differences and similarities and to eradicate the fear of the unknown. But mostly, they want to refer to all inhabitants of their country as South African, not as black, white, Indian or coloured.
Leonora: "I have seen the future when I look at my little girl who plays with her friends. At her crèche there are lots of mixed babies. They speak the same language and don't care about their colour."
And the birth of Phillip and Catheryne's child *John even brought a change in the mindset of Catheryne's conservative parents. "My mother asked me when I was pregnant if John was going to be black or white. But after he was born they didn't see his colour anymore, for them he was just their grandchild John. And that's how it needs to be."
*Names changed on request
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