Africa, April 18, 1985 – The New York Times
To the horror of his right-wing critics, South Africa’s President, P.W. Botha, is moving to scrap laws barring marriage and sexual relations between whites and nonwhites. Doing so won’t placate blacks demanding political rights, but voiding the Mixed Marriage Act means striking at the legal foundations of apartheid, exposing the system’s cruel absurdities. Since American pressure has helped bring about this welcome step, that argues for more of the same.
An obsessive concern with mixed marriages has been the dirty secret of racial politics in many nations, not excepting the United States. In South Africa in the 1950’s, John Gunther found that sexual and biological fears played a ”stupendous” role in Afrikaners’ attitudes. When their Nationalist Party came to power in 1949, it promptly outlawed interracial marriages. A companion act a year later sought to prohibit ”illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and Natives.”
It made no difference that the preoccupation with mixed marriages was based on wildly exaggerated fears. From 1943 to 1946, there were less than 100 marriages a year between Europeans and non- Europeans. The truly disruptive effect of the new laws was to wrench apart established families when wife, husband or children were classified in different groups.
This classification is the heart of apartheid, and the height of absurdity. Besides whites and blacks, there are seven classifications of other ”racial” groups: Cape Colored, Cape Malay, Griqua, Indian, Chinese, ”Other Asiatics” and ”Other Colored.” Using the shaky test of appearance and ”general acceptance,” the state has to mediate borderline cases, often with fateful consequences.
Under apartheid, race is destiny. A Group Areas Act determines which races live where. Travel is controlled by pass laws. Voting depends on skin color: 4.5 million whites are enfranchised, but 21 million blacks are legally ”citizens” only of impoverished, phantom homelands. Other nonwhites have their segregated parliaments.
When the mixed-marriage laws are abolished, the Government will be trapped in a new dilemma of its own making. Will newly legal couples be allowed to travel together? Whose race will determine where they live? Will black spouses be treated as non-citizens even if their partners are eligible to vote? No wonder Mr. Botha’s right flank is crying havoc.
The value of this reform is that it forces a wider discussion of the peculiar institutions that set South Africa apart. Pressing the argument forward is a feasible policy Americans will support, even as they argue about how to keep up the pressure. No matter how hotly they deny it, South Africa’s white rulers are sensitive to condemnation from Western nations, whose values they profess to share. Even more than disinvestment, they fear isolation. Every anti-apartheid demonstration here, meanwhile, is page one news there.
South Africa’s marriage and sex laws enshrine the official bigotry that has made the country an outcast. Eliminating them may not of itself signify ”the dismantling of the negative aspects of apartheid,” as Pretoria claims. But it is the beginning of a beginning.