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South African couples bridge racial divide

Though still rare, mixed-race relationships are beginning to emerge in this 'country of two nations.'

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 2004


On most days, Hazel, a round-faced woman with bright eyes, doesn't think about the fact that she's a statistical oddity in South Africa. She's a black woman who's married to a white man in a country where mixed-race unions were illegal until 1990.

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But occasionally it hits her.

Like when her 4-year-old son, Karabo, came home from preschool recently saying, "Mommy, the kids at school say Daddy is a white man. But he's not."

Intrigued, she asked, "Well, who is a white man to you?"

"White men are scary," came Karabo's reply. "And my Dad isn't a white man."

But Phillip is white. He's the scion of a British family that's run a large farm in South Africa for generations. Hazel is one of seven siblings from a simple village. They've been married for eight years.

Even as South Africa celebrated 10 years of multiracial democracy last week, it's still largely "a country of two nations" - of wealthy whites and poor blacks. But the fact that this duo, and small but growing numbers of oth- ers, have breached the racial divide in a most personal way is emblematic of the slow, steady integration of the races in the pos apartheid era.

In many ways, Hazel and Phillip's romance is just a simple love story: The boy spies the girl on a college campus. The girl asks the boy for a ride home in his truck. They date. They marry.

But in South Africa it's rare. Exact numbers aren't known, but by one estimate, four of every 100 marriages are between the major race groups: black, colored (mulatto), Asian, and white. Given the country's troubled history, many see this number as quite high. And it's expected to grow.

Black-white marriages are the rarest - and get the most attention. Some such couples are called "Top Decks," after a candy bar that's both white and milk chocolate. "That's an insult," says Frans Cronje, a researcher at the South African Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg. "But at least these couples aren't getting beaten to death in the street. And when you think about where we were 10 years ago, that's a positive thing."

Subtle criticism

Hazel and Phillip - who asked that their last name not be used - say they've rarely been criticized overtly. It comes in more subtle ways. Like when Karabo recently threw his paper airplane over the fence at their house. His parents didn't expect to get it back from their white neighbors. "They were friendly at first," explains Phillip. But soon their apparent disapproval came through. The wife, for instance, repeatedly complained to Hazel about how blacks were taking over the country. In general, Phillip says, "We tend to have more black friends than white friends."

Indeed, there's a big gap between blacks and whites on the issue of interracial marriage. Just 27 percent of blacks - and fully 75 percent of whites - say they'd be bothered if their child married across race lines, according to a survey by Harvard University and The Kaiser Family Foundation.

Americans, by contrast, are more accepting, though there's still a black-white gap.