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Mandela's visible legacy: South Africa's interracial couples no longer need to hide

Marc Shoul / Panos for NBC News

Dylan Lloyd and Thithi Nteta at their home in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South African couple Thithi Nteta and Dylan Lloyd have different accounts of how they met and fell in love. 

“We were friends for about a year,” said Nteta, a 28-year-old stylist.

“I like to say that I was courting her for about a year,” said Lloyd, 38.

One thing they agree on is that neither considered the other’s race before deciding to become involved - even though Nteta is black and Lloyd white and they live in South Africa, a country still healing the wounds caused by apartheid.

Twenty-five years ago, strict laws against relationships between whites and so-called non-whites would have made their love illegal.

During the apartheid era, homes of couples discovered to be breaking the laws were raided, and their bed sheets often checked and removed in case they needed to be used in court to prove illicit relations.

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View images of civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who went from anti-apartheid activist to prisoner to South Africa's first black president.

The ban on mixed marriage, designed to enforce total racial segregation, was ended in 1985 - one of the early reforms that signaled the end of white minority rule, culminating in the release of democracy icon Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison.  

When he was elected president in 1994, Mandela declared: "We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity -- a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

And now, relationships between people of different races in South Africa are seen as a sign of the integration and reconciliation espoused by Mandela after he strode out of prison a free man.

“One of the greatest affronts to human dignity was the ban on development of love relationships between people of different races,” said Lawrence Hamilton, a professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg. So their existence now is “quite an important barometer” of progress in the country, he said.

There are some high-profile role models for mixed marriage, including Soweto-born model and beauty queen Sonia Bonneventia Pule and her husband Matthew Booth -- a professional soccer player who was the only white member of South Africa’s 2010 World Cup team.

J. Brooks Spector, a former career U.S. diplomat and commentator who married a black South African woman in the 1970s, says that simply walking on the street with his wife in South Africa during the early years of his marriage was liable to cause a ruckus.

"You could get some very interesting neck-breaking looks," he said. "People would turn and look and then run into something -- they were transfixed."

"Now it has been a total sea-change," he said. "At this point it isn’t an issue, and there are a fair number of mixed couples."

The ban on mixed marriage began in 1949. Historically, things were different - South Africa's different communities have mingled since 1652, when Dutch immigrants settled near the Cape of Good Hope. Indeed, around four million South Africans known as “coloured” are descended from European colonists, Malay and Indonesian slaves, and African tribes.

The exact number of interracial couples isn’t known -- an official at South Africa's statistics bureau said interracial marriages weren't currently being tracked -- but the proportion of whites married to other whites fell from 99.6 percent in 1996 to 99.2 percent in 2001, according to census data.

In cities like Johannesburg, mixed couples are often seen in cafes, restaurants and bars. People from South Africa’s disparate ethnicities meet at school, university and work.  

On Wednesday night, Rebecca Kgoroeadira ate pizza and listened to live jazz in the Radium Beer Hall with her fiancé Ryno Ras and friend Ngosa Bwalya.  

Marc Shoul / Panos for NBC News

Rebecca Kgoroeadira and Ryno Ras at Radium Beer Hall in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday.

“I would not be here with Ryno today were it not for Mandela and his forgiveness,” said Kgoroeadira, a 28-year-old lawyer who’s black.

Mandela’s message of reconciliation – he discouraged blacks from retaliating against the white minority, for example –  is credited with helping avoid the bloodbath many expected after the end of apartheid. That is not to say it has been easy for Ras and Kgoroeadira in modern-day South Africa. 

“My family is not for this,” said Ras, an Afrikaner, a group descended from European settlers who speak Dutch-based Afrikaans, the language of the country’s apartheid-era rulers. “I don’t see Rebecca the way my parents would.”

There is a chance that Ras’ father will boycott the wedding. While a growing number of mixed-race couples are seen in thriving cities, they tend to be members of an upwardly mobile elite.  

Almost half of all South Africans rarely or ever speak to someone from a different race, according to a recent study by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, never mind try to ask them out on a date.

One quarter of all South Africans believe the biggest divisions in society stem from income inequality, according to the study. Only 13 percent thought race was the most important division.

The country’s 50 percent poverty rate and many communities’ ongoing isolation lie at the heart of the divisions between races, says Spector.  

“If these kids never break out their neighborhoods they will never be in a situation where they meet any others,” he said.

Marc Shoul / Panos for NBC News

Vlad Nedelcu and Ramiza Abdool at their home in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday.

Indeed, if Ramiza Abdool and her family had not “broken out” of Lenasia, the formerly exclusively Indian township in Johannesbug, it is hard to imagine how she would have met her fiancé Vlad Nedelcu, 36.

“If my parents had stayed in that community, none of this would have happened,” she said, referring to her career in online marketing and advertising, as well as her relationship with Nedelcu.

So it isn’t enough for laws to change, people must be given the opportunities to meet those outside their communities, Nedelcu said.

Under apartheid, Nedelcu, a Jew, would have been classified as white and thus unable to marry Abdool, who is Muslim-Indian.

Couples like Nedelcu and Abdool still face pure old-fashioned racism. “Some people you assume aren’t thinking nice things about us,” said Nedelcu, a systems analyst.

Abdool says she brushes off any attitude she might get from people who disapprove of their relationship. “Even if it’s there, it’s old school,” she shrugged.

Nteta, the stylist, points to her early school days as pivotal in making her open to getting to know and thus fall in love with someone like Lloyd. 

“I went to a very good public school. And from grade zero I was engaging with people of other races,” she said. “It is a privilege to be able to experience getting to know other people.”

For lawyer Kgoroeadira the answer is time. 

“The only thing that’s keeping us back is the older generation,” she said. “I suppose in a few generations, it’ll all be mixed.”

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