Interracial couples stand out in post-apartheid South Africa

Interracial couples still attract stares, 25 after the dawn of democratic SA and the repeal of the Immorality Act.
Interracial couples still attract stares, 25 after the dawn of democratic SA and the repeal of the Immorality Act.
Image: lightfieldstudios/ 123rf

Less than 40 years ago, Mpho Mojapelo and his wife Cheryl might have gone to jail.

"We would be hiding our relationship, we would have had to live separately, or maybe leave the country," said Mojapelo, a black man married to a white woman in South Africa.

"We are so fortunate to live in these times," he said.

The 35-year-old married Cheryl in 2015. They had both "white" and "African" weddings after the payment of "lobola" (dowry) and a ritual sheep slaughter.

But they are an exception to the norm even 25 years after the end of apartheid white-rule when Nelson Mandela became the first black president, promising a "rainbow nation".

"There is still not a lot of mixing in terms of relationships and interactions," said Mpho, who wears Doc Martens boots and sports several tattoos.

"We stick out so much," he added with a smile.

Over time the pair have become accustomed to being stared at - mostly because of "fascination" suggested Cheryl, 31, laughing along with her husband.

But sometimes "there are still people behaving like they are in their own bubble," said Mpho.

In one incident an elderly white couple in a restaurant in northern Limpopo province muttered "disgusting" in Afrikaans, the language of the original Dutch settlers' descendants.

Cheryl said she was "shocked" while Mpho nodded.

"It is going to take more than 25 years for things to change. We were in that stage of turmoil for so many years," said Mpho.

From 1948 the white-dominated government formalised centuries of racial segregation.

One of the first laws, adopted in 1949, banned "mixed marriages" between Europeans and non-Europeans.

'Not a racial divide ... a social divide'

To be able to marry a person of a different race, applicants could ask to change their own race - bureaucratic surrealism permitted by law.

The policy was scrapped in 1985, nine years before apartheid's end.

Around that time, Mpho's family left the Soweto township, a hotbed of anti-apartheid activism, for Roodepoort, a white suburb 20 kilometres (12 miles) away.

Mpho said his new school "was an all new world I dived into".

"In my primary school, there were only three black kids... That is when I saw I was different," he said.

Cheryl grew up in Cape Town followed by Roodepoort and had an upbringing she described as "sheltered".

"A neighbour ran up to me, I was seven or eight, he said: 'Oh there is a black man coming, we need to hide, he is going to steal from us'," she said. "I did not understand."

The couple attended the same school, a few years apart, and met at a party thrown by mutual friends in the early 2000s.

"We got the same education, we can relate to each other because we grew up in similar environments," said Cheryl.

"If Mpho did grow up in Soweto his whole life and he did not speak English, would I still date him?" she asked, her eyes fixed behind glasses.

"There is not a racial divide, there is a social divide."

Researcher Haley McEwen at the Wits Centre for diversity studies said: "Couples who go out are given poor service, they are stared at, people don't take their relationship seriously like their families."

'It is a work in progress' 

Cheryl and Mpho were brought together by a shared love of poetry before they became involved romantically.

"What are the people going to think? What are the people going to say?" Cheryl thought to herself before announcing the relationship publicly.

She said she "was a bit nervous to tell my parents."

But her parents, British migrants to South Africa, quickly accepted Mpho.

"They said to me: 'It does not matter about his skin colour as long as he treats you well and you guys have a good relationship'," said Cheryl.

While none of Mpho's social group mention his wife's race, Cheryl said that she was treated "differently" because of her skin colour.

Mpho's parents refuse to allow her to wash the dishes when visiting.

Cheryl dropped her maiden name, Forrest, and adopted her husband's surname, Mojapelo, after their marriage - creating confusion.

"People expect me to be black when I make an appointment - when I walk up, they are shocked to see me," she said.

"On the phone as well, they will automatically talk to me in a African language."

At a police station however, a gruff officer gave Cheryl VIP treatment upon learning her name.

"The assumption now is that I must be a nice person because I am married to a black person," she laughed.

Their baby, Camden, was born six months ago and has inherited his father's quiff and his mother's straight hair.

The doting parents face a challenge when completing forms requiring them to indicate Camden's race -he is neither white nor black.

"They definitely need the mixed race thing," said Mpho and Cheryl in unison.

"We all have to be realistic about the changes, racially, politically, it is going to take time," said Cheryl. "It is a work in progress."

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