Attitudes towards interracial marriages in South Africa

By Published On: 3rd July 2017

Photo: Amy of

June, not only February, is an important month to celebrate love. In particular, for love that transcends inter- and outer-group barriers. On 12th June 2017 marked fifty years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Loving v. Virginia case that marriage across racial lines was legal throughout the United States of America (USA), wiping laws that prohibited such marriages in certain states at the time[1].  In South Africa, marriage and sexual relationships between historically defined race groups were similarly prohibited by the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (Act No 55 of 1949) and the Immorality Act of 1950. These anti-miscegenation laws were introduced by the apartheid government and formed part of its overall policy of separateness, which included pieces of legislation such as the Population registration and Group Areas Act. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was eventually repealed in June 1985 – by the Immorality and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Amendment Act – allowing inter-racial marriages and relationships[2].  That year, Suzanne Leclerc and Protas Madlala became the first couple from different historically defined race groups to get married in South Africa after the change[3].

More than three decades later, a study conducted by researchers at North-West University in Mahikeng show that the odds of and individual marrying someone of the same race as themselves decreased from 303:1 in 1996, to 95:1 in 2011 – thus, an increase in interracial marriages in South Africa. The researchers attribute this to 1) “general changes in attitudes in society”; and, 2) “mutual tolerance” of people from various historically defined race groups in South Africa[4].

Intergroup marriages are considered an important measure of the dissolution of social and cultural barriers, therefore of social and cultural integration. Despite coming from different backgrounds, partners in intergroup (here interracial) marriages are likely to share some common values and aspirations. These elements are seen to be enabling of social cohesion in multicultural societies[5]. However, not only the odds of interracial marriages, but also attitudes towards interracial marriages are of importance when considering intergroup marriages as a measure of integration.

To this end, we can use data from the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB). One of the questions in the SARB survey asks respondents whether they would approve, disapprove or are neutral should a close relative of theirs marry someone from a different race group. This forms part of a list of questions with regards to attitudes towards racial integration in various contexts, which includes interracial marriage, integration at school and integration in neighbourhoods. Among these inter-racial marriage was consistently the least approved of the list provided from 2003-2013[6].

Looking at the findings specifically relating to attitudes towards interracial marriage, Figure 1 below shows that approval rates initially increased from 47% in 2003 to 53% in 2010, decreasing again to  47% from 2010 to 2015. The proportion of respondents who indicated that they neither approve nor disapprove (or are neutral) increased from 21% in 2003 to 26% in 2015; and, the proportion of respondents who indicated that they disapprove of a close relative marrying someone from another historically defined race group decreased from 29% in 2003 to 23% in 2015.

Figure 1: South Africa: Attitudes towards inter-racial marriage, 2003-2015, Total Population[1]

Overall, positive change (albeit incremental) in terms of approval of a close relative marrying a person from another race group has happened – as can be seen in the decrease in disapproval, as well as the increase in neutral responses. However, much works lies ahead in tackling prejudices in this regard – in particular given the reported higher odds of interracial marriages, while attitudes have been slower to adjust.

For a more in depth analysis and disaggregation of responses in terms of historically defined race groups, age groups, Living Standard Measures (LSM) and Highest Level of Education attained, please see our SARB report on this topic under publications during July 2017.


Elnari Potgieter is the Project Leader for the South Africa Reconciliation Barometer at IJR


[1] Wilkinson, A. 2017. Loving v. Virginia was decided 50 years ago, VOX, 17 June 2017.  Online:

[2] South African History Online (SAHO). 2016. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act commences. Online:

[3] Johnson, M. 1986. South Africa’s 1st Legal Mixed-Race Couple Allowed to Marry, Not to Live Together, Los Angeles Times, 13 July 1986. Online:

[4] Jacobson, C.K., Amoateng, A.Y., & Heaton, T.B. 2004. Inter-racial marriages in South Africa, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 35(3): 443-459.

[5] Khoo, S. 2011. Integration and Multiculturalism: A Demographic Perspective. Chapter 6 in Multiculturalism and Integration: A Harmonious Relationship, Michael Clyne, James Jupp (eds). ANU Press.

[6] Wale, K., Foster, D. 2015. Contact and Reconciliation, Chapter 4 in Rethinking Reconciliation: Evidence from South Africa, Lefko-Everett, K., Govender, R., Foster, D (eds). HSRC Press, Cape Town.

[7] In all instances: “Not applicable” was rendered “Missing”; “Strongly Disapprove” and “Disapprove” combined to form “Disapprove”. “Strongly Approve” and “Approve” combined to form ‘Approve”. “Neutral” in some years framed as “Neither disapprove nor approve”. For years up until 2006 the question referred to people from all other groups (other to that of the respondent); from 2006 onwards respondents were first asks what racial group (other than their own) the respondent find difficult to associate with. This questions is then followed with questions relating to integration with reference to the mentioned group.

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