South African couples bridge racial divide

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

The US Supreme Court struck down anti-mixed-marriage laws in 1967. In 2003, 66 percent of American whites - and 86 percent of blacks - said they wouldn't object if their child married interracially, according to a Gallup poll.

Also, American black-white unions are more often black men marrying white women. In South Africa, it's typically reversed: white men marrying black women. To the extent that economics plays into marriage, the widespread poverty among South Africa's black men "may be compelling black women to seek financial security from privileged - or white - groups," says Yaw Amoateng, a researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council in Cape Town.

Marrying Phillip has clearly improved Hazel's financial lot, although it's not a life of bon-bons. He is, for instance, still driving the same pickup truck as when they met in college a decade ago.

And anyway, it's come at a price. When Hazel began dating Phillip, all four of their parents were unfazed. But one of Hazel's favorite aunts - the one she always told all her secrets to - pulled her aside. "Why are you dating him?" she asked sharply. Like others in the village, the aunt worried, "He's a dropout who can't find a white wife," recalls Hazel. The aunt made Hazel promise not to marry him. Ever since the wedding, there's been a big distance between them.

Pulling closer together

The distances sparked by their marriage have pulled them closer together, they say, and closer to their church. Long ago, at a premarital check-in with their priest, he had this to say: "You're a Catholic, right Phillip? And you're Catholic, too, Hazel?" they recall. "Well, it's a good thing this won't be a mixed marriage!" Over the years, this priest and others have become the central support system that's helped them succeed.

Another key to success: Phillip's absorption of Hazel's culture. He has slowly learned her language. Although during one early lesson, his inability to grasp the difference between "wire" and "peach pit" in her native North Sotho, "almost meant the end of our engagement," he says, as they both laugh. They're even teaching their two children North Sotho as their first language.

Phillip especially likes the wide, strong family ties that are part of Hazel's culture.

"If her second cousin twice removed dies, we all load up and go to the funeral," he says in amazement. In the stiff-upper-lip British tradition, he says, "If my first cousin dies, we say, 'Put him in the ground and let's get on with it.' "

In fact, since marrying Hazel, Phillip has begun strengthening ties with his own wider family.

Getting to know each other's cultures, says Mr. Cronje, is key to expanding South Africa's racial harmony.

It's not that blacks and whites aren't marrying very much "because they don't like each other," says Mr. Cronje. After decades of separate existence under apartheid, "We just don't know each other very well." Even a decade on, he says, "We've got a lot to learn about each other."

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