14/02/2017 12:36 SAST | Updated 15/02/2017 12:06 SAST

23 Years Into Democracy, Interracial Couples Still Face Discrimination

Sometimes microaggressions are more telling about the state of society than any legal system can be.

Thirty-five years ago, the New York Times published an article about Ian Whitely and his wife Sherrin, who lived in the then-nothern Transvaal. Their love story made international news because it was sanctioned by then-prime minister P.W. Botha himself and had found its way past the strict race laws of the time. Ian Whitely was white, Sherrin Whitely was Indian. At the time, their relationship violated at least three laws: the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act; the Immorality Act; and the Group Areas Act, simply because of their different skin colour.

In 1982 the Whitelys were the poster couple for "changing racial attitudes", reporter Joseph Lelyveld said, and their story showed that a "good love story can occasionally have more force that a cold statute ... it just takes time for this to happen".

It took the Whitelys a reported 15 years to get to a government-sanctioned state of marital bliss. After marrying in Botswana they moved to Norway and then the United Kingdom thanks to the United Nations' refugee program. Longing for home, Ian "offered to be reclassified as nonwhite" so that he and Sherrin would be able to live together in South Africa. The prime minister said in a letter that he "regretted" Whitley could not reclassify himself as he was "obviously white", but that he and Sherrin would be able to return home on their South African passports and live without fear of persecution or prosecution.

Things have changed a lot in the 50 years since the Whiteleys first met. Today, government cares considerably less about who you love, regardless of their race or gender, which works out for interracial couples like Pippa Tshabalala, who is white. and her husband Sekwa Tshabalala, who is black.

The couple met and started dating a month after the 1994 elections. "I can count the number of times we've experienced discrimination on one hand," Pippa says, describing their 23 years together. They've been married for 11 of those years and have two sons.

"I think to a large extent where we live has had an impact on this," she adds. "With our family and friends and community, it's like we're in a bubble and in that bubble we're safe." In an ideal situation, South Africans would all be able to find safe spaces for their relationships, but just because laws change doesn't mean people have.

"I mean, what you guys do is your own business, but I think it's disgusting."

Lucy Jones* who is white had just arrived at a friend's birthday party with her partner, who is coloured. Without skipping a beat, upon introducing him, the birthday girl's sister told the couple exactly how she felt about their relationship. "I mean, what you guys do is your own business, but I think it's disgusting." It's not the first time Jones had had to face comments from her white friends and family.

"Once, a friend said to me 'He is nice guy but I just can't get my head around it,' talking about our relationship," she said. Jones said these comments have been incredibly hurtful and often put her in a difficult position -– feeling stuck between the people she has known her, her whole life and the partner she loved.

"The worst are the people who think they are giving me helpful advice, by 'warning' me of how difficult marriage is and how much more difficult it is going to be for us," Jones said. "I don't say anything about their racist, stupid or otherwise significant others, but because our differences are so obvious, people feel they owe me a 'heads up'."

"Someone once said to me that he was my 'rebellion', and it made me feel like I was with him because of other people and their perceptions," she said. Having people constantly point out their differences was tough. "It stopped being about who we are as individuals and what we have in common."

For others it's not always so blatant. "Generally, it's subtle cues," says Priya Naidoo*, who is Indian and whose partner is black. "People stare at us a little longer than is comfortable, or do double takes when we walk past them."

They've never experienced outright discrimination for being in an interracial relationship, but even the most subtle comments can be difficult to ignore. "We also get people gossiping about us while walking right behind us. This has happened with a former partner, who is also black, and it is usually so that my partner can hear, rather than to get a response from me. People also don't realise that I understand some isiZulu or SeSotho, and often can understand what they're saying".

Naidoo thinks addressing these comments isn't always worth the engagement. "It is a weird thing to navigate. Confronting people on them saying 'She thinks she's better than us,' or 'You see what they do?' is pointless."

Brushing it off is the only way to manage, Naidoo said, but they're always conscious of how others see them. "I just continue as if everything is fine, and so does he. But we always check in with each other on it, just so we are both aware of what is happening," she said.

For Tshabalala and her husband, there has been support for their relationship right from the start –- even in the face of some resistance. "My father had an issue with Sekwa being black, but my parents are divorced and I didn't have a relationship with my dad, so I didn't care what he thought. Sekwa's family is quite mixed, so it was never an issue for them. My mum was more concerned about the age difference between us," she says. When they met, in high school, Pippa was 13 and Sekwa 17. She believes their ages are what worked to their advantage.

"We just pushed through. It's possible that more people had a problem than we realised, but we were oblivious to it. As we got older, I started noticing more if people were staring," Tshabalala said.

In raising their sons, Tshabalala is aware that the innocence of age may soon be replaced by exposure to the world. Their eldest son is five years old and just started Grade R at a school in Sandton.

"There is always a concern as a parent about someone saying something," Tshabalala said. "We've been lucky and I think Joburg is much more multicultural than other parts of the country –- we are more cautious when we are in Pretoria, for example, and Cape Town is still very white so we are aware of being in an interracial relationship when we are elsewhere."

Even so, the fact that their marriage is interracial is not the focus for the Tshabalalas and it's evident in Pippa's lighthearted approach to their differences and the way they unsettle other people - like being a white woman with the surname Tshabalala. "I get a double take from people who don't know me. They see my name and are shocked when they meet me," she says laughing. "I changed my name because it puts people on the back foot and that amuses us both."

It's a difficult reality to navigate, whether exposed to blatant discrimination or microaggressive treatment. While, unlike the Whitelys, it doesn't take a sanctioned nod from the president to be able to love who you do, social pressures can sometimes be too much to handle. Decades after South Africa embraced an inclusive society on paper, it's mindsets that need to change rather than legislation.

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February is the month of love. At the Huffington Post South Africa, we take a look at how South Africans are finding and holding on to love. Author Shubnum Khan tells us about how cross-border romances are made or broken, tech journalist Nafisa Akabor looks at how social media replaced your meet-cute and lifestyle editor Sarah Koopman has some advice on how to get away from that tired old dinner-and-a-movie setup. Find them all and more here, or try these.