Examining the power of shame in prosecutions under the Immorality Act
“During apartheid, the National Party was obsessed with protecting whites’ mythical racial purity and therefore passed legislation prohibiting sex across the white-black colour line. Specifically, they aimed at halting straight white men’s involvement in interracial sex, though, of course, black women with whom they were arrested also suffered tremendous, often far greater harm and hardship. Especially in the first two decades, interracial sex was seen by many Afrikaners as the most reprehensible crime a white man could commit – equated with bestiality and sexual deviance – and the regime deliberately deployed shame as a means of policing white male heterosexuality and as a form of punishment for white men caught contravening the law. As they expected, shaming was often a highly effective punishment. The consequences could be excruciating for white men and their families. People were ostracised, lost status, reputation and employment, entailing huge economic and social costs for families. It led to many men’s suicides,” said Susanne Klausen of the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. “This work is part of a book project that repositions illicit white (hetero) sexuality from the margins to the centre of Afrikaner nationalist politics and understandings of apartheid culture.”
For her seminar she focused on the prosecution in 1969 of John Blacking and Zureena Desai – a trial she described as a hugely consequential event in the history of racialised policing of sex under apartheid. The Blacking/Desai prosecution undermined the apartheid state, domestically and internationally, highlighting how apartheid state politics turned on questions of illicit heterosexuality.
Puritanical morality with fear of extinction
Klausen described the far-right Afrikaner nationalists who came to power in South Africa in 1948 as strongly influenced by Neo Calvinist morality and a profound desire for Afrikaners to remain a distinct, separate group, and thus they fiercely opposed miscegenation. “They saw themselves as heeding a call from God to ensure the survival of the Afrikaner volk on the African continent. The goal was to maintain their uniqueness by guarding white purity. Therefore, they saw the Immorality Amendment Act, passed in 1950, as a means to protect transgressive heterosexual white men – men characterised as weaker members of society – from themselves, and to protect white society from them. They tried to impose a hegemonic Afrikaner masculinity on white men that was intensely puritanical, patriarchal, Christian, homophobic and politically conservative.”
The 1950 Immorality Act criminalised extramarital heterosexual sex between whites and blacks with prison terms of up to five years. In 1957 the definition was broadened to include ’conspiring’ and soliciting sex. Between 1950 and 1985, at least 19 000 people were prosecuted and at least 11 000 were convicted, but thousands more were arrested. The police themselves estimated they were only catching a tiny percentage of cases. The focus of policing white masculinity expanded in the late 60s to include persecution of gay men.
“As was common in settler colonial states, anti-miscegenation laws under apartheid acted as a kind of ‘legal factory’ for defining, producing and reproducing racial categories. However, in the history of colonial regulation of intimate relations, the Immorality Act (1950) was unique in its target: heterosexual white men. Typically in colonial contexts, settler men’s extramarital sexual exploits with colonised women were largely tolerated. Under apartheid the opposite occurred. The ruling National Party government attempted to protect the (mythical) racial purity of the Afrikaner volk by attacking white men’s patriarchal sexual liberties.”
“Adultery with a white woman equalled a sin, but with a black woman it was a racial crime,” she added. The law specifically aimed at prosecuting white men (including men of high status) and a key form of punishment was public shaming. The prosecutions of white men and black women, Klausen said, were reported to a scandal-hungry public by the English and Afrikaans press. “The press published the personal details of the men on trial to deter future ‘race crimes’,” continued Klausen. “Many men, especially Afrikaners, found the experience profoundly shameful, which is precisely what the apartheid regime wanted. Shaming, the NP assumed, would serve as both punishment and deterrent. The regime welcomed the impact of public exposure on countless ‘race traitors’ – stigmatisation, ostracisation, even social death – and for years greeted reports of their suicides with a shrug.”
In fact, such suicides were seen as evidence that the men knew they had committed a heinous race crime and that the law was right.
The Blacking/Desai case, however, turned the tables on a regime that routinely practiced shaming.
On 11 January 1969, the Security Police arrested Desai and Blacking at Blacking’s home in Johannesburg. They were the most high-profile couple ever prosecuted under the Act and their arrest sent shockwaves through South Africa and beyond. Blacking was a highly respected British academic and head of the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand. He was also a fearless, outspoken critic of apartheid and Afrikaner nationalism who openly admired Robert Sobukwe and the Pan Africanist Congress, advocated for African’s right to rule Azania, criticised institutionalised racism and black exploitation, held openly mixed events and was, as a consequence, deeply admired by many of his white students.
“The news that Blacking, a handsome 40-year-old married man, was accused of having an affair with a much younger, very beautiful Indian medical doctor immediately became front-page news in newspapers across the country and internationally,” said Klausen. “The Security Police chose the Immorality Act as the means to silence him.”
“However, in his bombshell of a court statement in which Blacking explicitly rejected shame, he turned the tables on the regime. He surprised everyone listening, not least the court, by declaring his relationship with Desai as a ‘pure and beautiful’ friendship.” (That this was a love story was subsequently reinforced by their long marriage and four children.)
Although Blacking and Desai were found guilty of ‘conspiring’ to have sex and given suspended sentences – initially seen as a success for the National Party – it quickly became clear that the trial made South Africa an international laughing stock. Widely publicised reports about the prurient methods of investigation, including a police officer spying on the couple’s bedroom from a tree, prompted disbelief and ridicule abroad. “The news coverage conveyed an image of uptight, sexually repressed, dirty-minded men ruling the country.”
Klausen said, the case undermined the apartheid project nationally and internationally. “The example of Blacking and Desai’s moral courage and refusal to be shamed inspired South Africans and likely gave other prosecuted white men and black women the courage to be defiant,” continued Klausen. “Blacking was not the first heterosexual white man to reject the imposition of hegemonic Afrikaner masculinity but he believes he was the first to make a widely publicised declaration of strong feelings for a black woman, and this resonated with those chaffing under the regime.”
Klausen believes the case was also disastrous for South Africa’s image abroad and played some role in bolstering the international anti-apartheid movement.
In the early 1970s the regime, wanting to avoid the publicity surrounding such prosecutions, cut back on arrests for having interracial sex. “It’s interesting that Fozia Fisher and Rick Turner, an openly married, interracial couple, who were together from early 1970 onwards, were never arrested for contravening this vicious law before his assassination in 1978,” said Klausen.
Klausen believes the harsh implementation of legislation criminalising extramarital interracial sex (distinct to South Africa) still has resonance in contemporary South Africa.
“The ongoing stigma attached to interracial relationships is a classic example of how colonial histories shape the present.”
She aims to interrogate the role of the criminalisation of sex outside marriage between heterosexual whites and blacks in teaching and reinforcing racialised identities and boundaries during apartheid. Doing so, she believes, will not only highlight the brutalising effects of the Immorality Act on South Africans, it will also increase understanding of how South Africa became such a deeply racialised society.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu