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"Born Free" in Democratic South Africa

“Born Free” in Democratic South Africa

With Nelson Mandela’s recent passing, I’ve found myself reflecting on South Africa’s apartheid history a lot. I have reflected on the significance of his life and passing for me personally (socio-politically and economically) and South Africa’s future (in the country’s pursuit of reconciliation, freedom and justice) elsewhere. Yet, this blog seems the appropriate place for a reflection on what Nelson Mandela’s sacrifice has meant for my relational life; that is, how it came to be even possible for me to end up romantically, racially “mixed-up”.

In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela writes, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” I can attest to this in my own life.

The first boy I ever felt attracted to was a black boy in my maternal uncle’s neighbourhood in Orlando West (not far from where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela lived), in Soweto. He was good-looking and charismatic and, though I didn’t understand what I felt towards him at the time – I was only five years old or so, after all – I found myself somehow drawn to him. I wanted to get close to him and get to know him better. I never did.

Till that point, all I had personally known from growing up in the township were black  people. I had never met a white person before and the television channel we watched at home was the Zulu station with the bulk of the people we saw portrayed there being black. That changed when I went to a “multiracial school” (as it was called, though it was actually a predominantly white girls’ school with a smattering of black girls in the mix), in the exclusively white northern suburbs.

Through participating in extra-curricular activities like choir, I came to meet the next boy to whom I was attracted when I was about ten years old. He was white. It’s rather cliched, in fact, that he was blonde with blue eyes. As sibling schools, his boys’ school and my girls’ school periodically came together for extracurricular competitions and performances. This was one such occasion when our choirs had gathered for a day-long singathon. He walked in late, looking very cool indeed. I thought he was cute and liked his apparent confidence. I wanted to get to know him. I never had the chance.

I met the first interracial couple I ever knew when I was about twelve (in 1992/3). We had recently moved to the formerly white northern suburbs months after the Group Areas Act of 1950 – which had prescribed strict racial segregation of residential areas – had been repealed by the Abolition of Racially Based Land Measures Act on 30 June 1991. The couple lived a few houses away from us and the parties had what struck me as a strange demeanour about them both. The white man was allegedly unmarried (though he had children from a previous marriage with a white woman) and seemed aloof from the world. The black woman lived on his property but – at least for appearance’s sake – in the maids’ quarters (back rooms). Though she almost always wore a maid’s uniform, she also always had her hair and nails done and seemed very self-assured in a way that appeared somehow out of keeping with her station. Other than that, she served him like she was his help.

It was by listening in on the quiet discussions between the women in my family that I learned that Thembi and Arnold* were actually romantically involved. As it turned out, their “baas” (boss) and “girl” (female domestic worker) set-up was for the benefit of the authorities. In my family, it was always spoken of as a secret – something not to be uttered too loudly, and something surrounding which were some moral misgivings. I vaguely learned then that this was largely because their being together had been illegal for the longest time. I imagine that my family did not know that it no longer was so. The sections of the Immorality Act of 1927 (replaced by similar legislation in 1957) that had banned extramarital relations between persons of different races and the entire Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 had been repealed in 1985. If Thembi and Arnold knew that fact, they had not seemed to act on it; perhaps because it would not have improved the social acceptability of their union, even if it did legitimate their relationship legally. After all, apartheid had still not technically ended.

Against this socio-legal backdrop, I found myself in a strange situation. I went to school with white people and interacted with them as equals in class but Thembi and Arnold’s story told me that I wasn’t supposed to cross the line of friendship. Somehow, to go beyond that with a white person was wrong. This didn’t matter as I went on to have a few crushes on and flirtations with black guys I found attractive. But, then in 1996, I found myself struck by one of the white guys from our brother school who was modelling with me in a fashion show that my class put on as a fundraiser for the matric dance/prom. I suppressed the thought. When a black girlfriend asked me directly – after catching a brief, wondering look I’d given him during one of our rehearsals – I flat-out denied it. In my mind, it would be wrong to even think it. Instead, I ended up dating a black guy I met at the event and liked.

It was during my gap year in England in 1999 that I first seriously considered dating outside of my race. I guess, it was the first time it seemed other than anathema to do so. (My being one of maybe five black people in a town of about 4,000 probably contributed.) Since then, before meeting Dan, I’ve found guys from a variety of races to be attractive – though the way things have worked out, I’ve only dated black and white. To be honest, I never dated the white guys with a serious expectation of ending up with one; I had a lot of race-related baggage. In fact, on Dan’s and my first trip, to Switzerland, I remember standing on a bridge in Zurich, in glistening sunlight, and being suddenly seized by panic as Dan approached to kiss me. The question that followed in my mind was crystal clear: what if interracial relationships are illegal here?

While I am astounded at the fact that the law would ever have presumed to tell us that we could not love one another or bear legitimate children together, I am also still somewhat astonished at the fact that I am married to a white man (and, unlike Thembi and Arnold, in circumstances in which Dan and I are social equals). And, though the same panic does not seize me as often when we find ourselves together in new – especially, majority-white – settings, I am greatly aware of the fact that our being together will never be completely normal to me. I pray that, somehow, it will be to our future children.

With all the sobriety with which Mandela’s death – and remembering his incredibly sacrificial life (such as through the glimpse of it provided by the movie, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) – has left me, I am grateful for much. In this moment in particular, I am grateful that Dan does not face the penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment for choosing to be with me. I am thankful that I cannot be accused, by law, of seducing Dan, subject to a penalty of four to six years’ incarceration. I am glad that not only would our interracial marriage be legally valid in South Africa if we had married outside of the country (which it would not have been under apartheid) but we were able to solemnise our marriage within the borders of that country of my birth and country I love – publicly and with the full endorsement of the law.

In short, I am grateful that our love is not a crime.

If for nothing more than that (and there is, in fact, so much more), I am grateful to Nelson Mandela and his comrades for ‘fighting the good fight’.

* The couple’s names have been changed out of respect.

One thought on “When Love Was a Crime

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