Since the end of apartheid – and even for some years before that – young South Africans have been free to date whoever they want. But relationships between black people and the country’s Asian population remain quite rare – and the approval of parents, and grandparents, is not a given.
As his mother adds garlic powder to the mopane worms frying on the stove behind him, Tumelo fidgets in his swivel chair. It’s a big day. His girlfriend Ithra and her family are coming over for Saturday lunch. She’s texted to say they are minutes away. It will be the first time his black family and her Asian-origin family have met. He’s wearing a casual T-shirt and jeans, but for once he’s looking agitated.
“It’s making me nervous because this is an example of what it really means to integrate,” he says.
“It’s like, ‘OK cool, you’re going to come here and you’re going to eat our food. You’re not going to get, like, pizza.’ I’m not just accepting you as Ithra, and then your culture and your religion is like…” – he gestures with his hands as if sweeping something under an imaginary carpet.
“It’s not like, ‘I’m not going to be part of that but I will be a part of this.’ You have to be part of the whole thing.”
Another text pings.
Earlier in the week, when I met Tumelo and Ithra near Rosebank mall in Johannesburg, they’d explained that two pivotal things were about to happen: they were going to find out whether they would get junior doctor placements together in Cape Town – and they were going to introduce their parents.
“I’m nervous,” Ithra had admitted.
“I’m not,” Tumelo had said, “I’m excited!”
It’s late 2019 and Ithra and Tumelo, both 24, are both at the end of their final year of medical school at Wits University in Johannesburg. They became friends almost immediately in their first year and started going out in their third year. Throughout their friendship both have had other relationships, and both have dated outside their races before – but both feel that they received fewer stares when they had white partners.
“It was almost like, if you were dating someone who’s white, it’s expected,” Tumelo says. “I feel like people can justify you dating someone white, it’s almost like you’re dating ‘up’. I think it is a post-apartheid thing, people have a hierarchy that was built up in their head.”
Apartheid, South Africa’s government-sanctioned segregation of races, officially ended in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president. It was also the year the couple were born – which makes them part of the so-called Born Free generation.
Already making up more than 40% of the country, this is the first generation in South Africa free to work, live and vote however they please. They are also free to love whomever they want, at least in theory.
Relationships between black and Asian South Africans remain uncommon, though. “We’re the only Blasian couple in our class,” says Ithra. “There’s around 300 of us. If it’s interracial, it’s a person of colour with a white person.”
But #Blasian is a growing social media tag used by black or Asian people in relationships with one another – sometimes documenting the specific challenges they face.
Ithra’s family come from Cape Malay, a community of mixed-Asian ethnicities who have been in South Africa for generations. Born in Kenya to an Indian father, Ithra moved back to her mother’s home country – to Johannesburg – at the age of six. It’s where she decided to stay for university and where she would meet Tumelo, who was born in the city.
Ithra had a liberal upbringing. Her mother, Rayana, had actively opposed and organised against apartheid. But not everyone was ready for her relationship with Tumelo.
It started with a mass exodus from the wider family Whatsapp group. At first Ithra didn’t know what had happened.
“I phoned home and my sister said it was because my gran found out that I’m dating a black guy,” Ithra said. “She phoned my sister and she was like, ‘What are people going to say if my grandchild is dating a black guy?’ Because where she comes from they’re very much about the community and the community knows everything.”
When we met, Ithra hadn’t spoken to her grandmother Washiela since that moment. It had been almost three months.
“I try to explain to Ithra that my mother’s resistance comes from her experience during apartheid,” Ithra’s mother Rayana tells me the next day, from her bright airy kitchen that sits on top of a hill overlooking Joburg.
Ithra and her four sisters mill around in the background, speaking over each other as they cut fruit, boil tea and flip pancakes, in an almost synchronised dance that enables them to avoid bumping into each other.
“We were so divided,” Rayana says, as her daughters finish eating and disappear upstairs. “Being Muslim and Cape Malay meant that we lived in the coloured areas, spending more time with mixed-Asian or Indian communities. My parents wouldn’t have stepped into a black person’s home.”
Rayana moved back to Johannesburg from Kenya as a single mother and raised her daughters alone until she remarried.
As she’s describing how she campaigned against apartheid, alongside black activists, there’s a sudden screaming from upstairs.
“What is it?” Rayana shouts up.
Ithra’s sister Taleah emerges at the bottom of the stairs.
“They got Somerset!”
“Somerset? Woooooh! Cape Town! Congratulations! ‘They’ – did you hear that? The news came with a ‘they’,” Rayana exclaims.
Ithra and Tumelo have received the news that they have secured junior doctor placements in the same hospital – over 1,000km away in Cape Town.
Rayana, overwhelmed, suddenly breaks down in tears.
Until now Ithra and Tumelo have lived at home, supervised by their families. But soon they will be moving away together to a new city. Alone. While she has always been supportive of her daughter dating a black guy, something suddenly feels different.
“It’s a lot to process. There might be a future between Ithra and Tumelo, and that’s maybe what it is,” she hesitates.
“I didn’t want to think that far. I always encouraged the girls to be open about everything. And now it’s a relationship. With a black guy. How open am I really?”
“Mum, we’re gonna get roasted! We’re gonna get roasted!” Ithra cries from the hall. “South African Twitter is coming for us!” her sister, Iman, agrees.
Ithra and her sisters – who have now made their way from her bedroom where they were huddled over a computer waiting for the junior doctor posting – worry that their mother’s honesty about race may be received badly, especially on social media, when this story is published.
“I never reared you guys to be racist,” Rayana directly addresses her daughters. “But the reality is it’s the first time that I’m stepping into a black family’s home under the context of possible in-laws, you know? It sits differently.
“Because I lived in apartheid, those divides were real. I remember being so angry with my parents and my grandparents for not doing something about it. How could we be part of such a cruel and unfair system – and you allowed it? Now when you have that kind of purpose, of course I’m going to have kids that I’ve raised that are free of that reality but I’m also human and I come from a certain community so it does go deeper.”
At the home of Ithra’s grandparents, Washiela and Ashraf, a live stream from Mecca play on the TV in the background and large calligraphy prints of verses of the Koran are framed on the walls.
Grandpa Ashraf, in a wheelchair, wears a traditional Islamic thobe and cap.
His wife asks me to sit next to her on the leather couch as I ask why they haven’t spoken to their granddaughter for months.
It wasn’t their choice not to talk, they say, it was Ithra’s.
“In the beginning it was a bit tough because you know we are from old school,” Washiela says. “I come from the apartheid era and there were barriers. The whites one side. The coloureds one side and the blacks one side.”
The tiered levels of apartheid meant that Indian and mixed-race people were given preferential treatment, compared to black people.
Would they prefer Ithra to be dating someone of her own culture?
“Obviously, yes I would,” admits Washiela. “But then it’s not [a question of] what I want.”
Would it have made a difference if Ithra was with a white guy instead of a black guy?
Grandpa Ashraf interjects, “No, that is being racist, actually.”
“That is racist,” agrees his wife. Then she adds: “You know we were very racist, I am going to be honest with you because we come from apartheid and that stigma is always there. It will never go away. But it’s strange when it comes to your own family, then it’s a different scenario and you have to accept… It’s the Rainbow Nation.”
When Granny Washiela says “Rainbow Nation” she raises her eyebrows and smiles ironically.
“I would like to meet him,” Grandpa Ashraf says, referring to Tumelo. “He should come here and introduce himself to us properly.”
Attitudes to interracial relationships are an indicator of how far South Africans have travelled in terms of integration and addressing prejudices, according to a 2017 report from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), but the data suggests that there has been little progress.
An annual nationwide opinion poll, the South Africa Reconciliation Barometer, shows almost no change in the number who would approve of a close family member marrying someone from another race group, the IJR notes – the proportion was 47% in 2003, and remained the same in 2015, although the number of those who disapproved fell slightly.
Approval rates among white people rose significantly over this period, though they are still more negative than others about interracial marriage. Approval of interracial marriage among the mixed-race and Indian communities actually fell in the 12 years to 2015.
Approval of interracial marriage
At the same time, the number of interracial marriages is increasing. A study by North-West University in Mahikeng showed that in 1996 only one marriage in 300 involved people of different races, but by 2011 it had become about one in 100.
Data gathered for the BBC by Statistics of South Africa from the General Household Survey also shows there were an estimated 8,114 Blasian married couples in 2018 (defined as marriages between black people and people of Asian origin – including Indian, Cape Malay and East Asian). That’s 0.1% of the total.
According to the 2011 census, three-quarters of South Africa’s population is black, and Asians make up just 2.5%. The rest of the population divides more or less equally into white and mixed-race.
Paula Quinsee, a relationship coach from Johannesburg, says Blasian couples face particular challenges. At least black and white people in relationships with each other are both likely to come from Christian families, while in Blasian relationships religion is added to other cultural barriers.
And there is another factor. “While younger generations in South Africa are freer to date, there are still certain perceptions, which are consequences of the hierarchy of apartheid, that dating a white person is more acceptable because it is seen as going ‘up’ a social status according to apartheid,” Quinsee says. “It may no longer be the case, but it’s a post-apartheid mindset.”
It’s the day of the big meeting and Tumelo’s mum, Modjadji, has gone all out. She’s spent the morning preparing the mopane worms, tripe and chicken’s feet. She’s also bought halal meat especially.
“They must know me the way I am and I will know them the way they are,” she smiles. There’s no way she could have been allowed to bring home a man of another race she says. That would have been unheard of. She wants her children to have that freedom, though she doesn’t want them to abandon their culture. And that means not compromising on eating chicken feet and tripe, or drinking alcohol, in front of people who may not be used to it.
“They’re here,” says Tumelo, getting up to go to the door. Ithra, Rayana and her husband and Ithra’s sisters arrive holding flowers and deep pans containing Asian food: biryani and tandoori chicken.
Modjadji throws her arms around Rayana. “My friend!” she says. “My friend! Finally!”
“Tumelo was teasing me!” Rayana says after a long embrace. “He said you were making worms!”
“I am!” says Modjadji, laughing.
“Oh,” replies Rayana, her smile slipping only very slightly.
As the families sit down to eat, Tumelo’s brother recites a Christian prayer. Then the conversation resumes, and soon it turns to those not at the table – namely, Ithra’s grandparents.
“My parents’ reaction is based on fear,” Rayana says. “I was thinking about my own childhood days. At school, because we lived in what was known as a coloured area and there weren’t a lot of blacks around us…”
She repeats some of the things she had told me earlier, but as Rayana finishes, Tumelo picks her up on a phrase she has used.
“Will you please say ‘black people’ and not ‘blacks’?”
“Thank you,” Rayana replies immediately. “I struggle to say ‘black’ generally – because I just don’t feel that we should be using these words – that should have left [them behind] a long time ago. So what are the replacements? ‘Human’ or… ?”
“No no no, I hear you,” Tumelo replies smiling. “That’s why I said ‘black people’ and not ‘blacks’ because I have heard ‘blacks’ being used so often as a derogatory term that it makes me uncomfortable to hear black people being referred to as ‘blacks’ or ‘the blacks’.”
“Sure, I understand. Thank you.”
Later, Tumelo’s father Phuti – a quiet man who has remained silent for most of the lunch – speaks up with advice for the Born Frees at the table.
“When Mandela became the president we thought that would have been the moment. But it was never a moment. Actually in my view things got a little bit worse than what we thought,” he says.
“I wanted to raise my kids to go to a better school than me – one that will have other races – they must learn what I couldn’t learn. I never interacted with Indians until very late in my life, when I was working. This generation will resolve it. Every generation has its own problem. And I think this generation, this is their problem – they’ll sort it out.”
In a quiet moment, just before Ithra’s stepdad offers to conclude lunch with Muslim prayer, Tumelo tells me that he will visit Ithra’s grandparents before the move to Cape Town. And their mums agree to fly together to see their children one weekend.
And with that, two families in Joburg, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, bow their heads and close their eyes to pray, with plates of biryani sitting next to a portion of mopane worms laid out in front of them.