The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (no. 55 of 1949) was one of the first pieces of Apartheid legislation enacted after the National Party came to power in South Africa in 1948. The Act banned marriages between “Europeans and non-Europeans”, which, in the language of the time, meant that white people could not marry people of other races.
The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act did not, however prevent so-called Mixed Marriages between non-white people.
Unlike some other key pieces of Apartheid legislation, this act was designed to protect the “purity” of the white race rather than the separation of all races. The law, along with the related Immorality Acts, which prohibited extra-marital, interracial sexual relations, was repealed in 1985.
While most whites South Africans agreed that mixed marriages were undesirable, there was opposition to making such marriages illegal. In fact, a similar act had been defeated in the 1930s when the United Party was in power.
It was not that the United Party supported interracial marriages. Most were vehemently opposed to any interracial relations.
But they thought that the strength of public opinion against such marriages was sufficient for preventing them. They also said there was no need to legislate interracial marriages as so few happened anyway, and as Johnathan Hyslop argued, some even stated that making such a law insulted white women by suggesting they would marry black men.
Religious Opposition to the Act
The strongest opposition, however, came from the churches.
Marriage, many clerics argued, was a matter for God and churches, not the state. One of the key concerns was that the Act declared that any mixed marriages “solemnized” after the Act was passed would be nullified. But how could that work in churches that did not accept divorce? A couple could be divorced in the eyes of the state, and married in the eyes of the church.
These arguments were not enough to stop the bill from passing, but a clause was added declaring that if a marriage was entered into in good faith but later determined to be “mixed” then any children born to that marriage would be considered legitimate even though the marriage itself would be annulled.
Why didn’t the Act prohibit all interracial marriages?
The primary fear driving the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was that poor, working-class white women were marrying Coloured men. In actual fact, very few were. In the years before the act, only roughly 0.2-0.3% of marriages by Europeans were to Coloured individuals, and that number was declining. In 1925 it had been 0.8%, but by 1930 it was 0.4%, and by 1946, 0.2%.
The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was designed to protect white political and social dominance by preventing a handful of people from blurring the line between white society and everyone else in South Africa. It also showed that the National Party was going to fulfill its promises to protect the white race, unlike its political rival, the United Party, which many thought had been too lax on that issue.
Anything taboo, however, can become attractive, just by virtue of being forbidden. While the Act was rigidly enforced, and the police endeavored to root out all illicit interracial relations, there were always a few people who though that crossing that line was well worth the risk of detection.