The findings of a new study at North-West University in Mahikeng about changes in interracial marriages have raised hopes that race relations in the country are improving.
They fly in the face of some of the racial, ethnic and xenophobic tensions that have been the hallmark of South African society in recent months, and which have again put the issue of national cohesiveness centre stage.
The study has indicated that, while “in-group” marriage is still the norm in the country, the trend has been changing slowly and consistently over the years, especially among the groups who are the least likely to marry across the colour line: Asians, Indians and whites.
The overall odds of a person marrying someone of the same race group dropped from 303:1 in 1996 to 95:1 in 2011, a situation that is attributed to the general changes in attitudes in society and the mutual tolerance of the races through increased contact in contexts such as education, religion and residential neighbourhoods.
A major reason for the increase in interracial marriages, researchers say, is increased access to education and educational attainment by previously disadvantaged groups such as Africans and coloureds.
Education increases the chances of members of previously disadvantaged groups marrying Asians, Indians and whites.
However, increased educational attainment among Asians, Indians and whites tends to make them marry their own kind.
This latest study suggests that about 5% of coloureds, Asians and Indians
marry outside their groups, though whites remain the least likely to do so. The most common interracial marriages are those between Africans and coloureds. Also, African men – especially those who are socially mobile – are the most likely to marry outside their group, while African women are the least likely to do so.
Regardless of gender and whether education is increasing or reducing the odds of interracial marriage, the effects of education on this trend are declining over time, a situation that suggests the erosion of social-class differences between races in South Africa.
The declining effect of education or social class in mate selection may be reflecting a natural process of mutual assimilation of the races as society evolves from a race-conscious one into a nonracial one.
Amoateng is a research professor of sociology and family studies at North-West University