Interracial couples stand out in post-apartheid S. Africa


Wed, Apr 24, 2019 - Page 6

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 lebola (dowry) and a ritual sheep slaughter.

However, 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, smiling.

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

However, sometimes “there are still people behaving like they are in their own bubble,” Mpho said.

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 that she was “shocked,” as 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,” Mpho said.

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

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

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 township of Soweto, a hotbed of anti-apartheid activism, for Roodepoort, a white suburb 20km away.

Mpho said that 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 that she described as “sheltered.”

“A neighbor 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,” Cheryl said.

“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.”

“Couples who go out are given poor service, they are stared at, people don’t take their relationship seriously like their families,” said Haley McEwen, a researcher in diversity studies at the Wits Centre.

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