Early 20th Century South Africa: Race, Sex, and the State

Associations of racism and South Africa often prevail in the context of the 1948-1991 Apartheid; yet, segregation propagated by generations of European colonialism plagued the very beginnings of the 1910 Union of South Africa, predecessor to the modern Republic of South Africa.[1] Several initiatives at the turn of the twentieth century fortified this racial separation, including the 1905 South African Native Affairs Commission that proposed a geographical estrangement of white and black populations and effectively gestated the policy of racial segregation that would plague South Africa for decades.[2] Social discrimination had far-reaching consequences that ranged past territorial seclusion to sexual isolation. From the early 1900s to the late 1930s, anxiety about sexual liberation in South Africa and its implications for both race relations and the state of the nuclear family prompted considerable public debate and legislation, including legal reforms on interracial sex, eugenics related to sexual misdemeanor, and sex education.

The years following the South African War, 1899-1902, and those leading up to the long-awaited establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 founded the basis for the racially-influenced apprehension towards sexual freedom.[3] As early as 1902, the Cape of Good Hope Act No. 36 attempted to suppress the booming trend of prostitution.[4] Prostitution posed a moral threat to the missionary-guided Christian lifestyle followed by most European South Africans, as well as many black South Africans, but interracial sex especially jeopardized the stable central family unit produced via heterosexual marriage.[5] Fear of white women falling prey to rape by black men, known as the ‘Black Peril’, increased alarm in the white community over unconstrained sexual relations. While not unique to South Africa, the “Peril” arose at a time of vast political change in the region’s history, particularly considering the eight year timeframe between the South African War and the creation of the Union.[6] The political dynamics of the period troubled social dynamics along racial lines by “the subjection of a woman of the dominant race to the power of a man of the subordinate race.”[7] This idea points to a social framework for the perceived black ‘danger’. Yet in the case of consensual sex, as exemplified by the lack of racial bias by white prostitutes, black men would intimately engage with white women at a scale equal to that of white men.[8] Black men, then, could begin to expand this illegitimate and casual sex to miscegenation to social equality to politics, threatening dysgenesis of the white race.[9]

Further legislations showcase state growing concerns over the “Black Peril” and prostitution epidemics throughout South Africa and their impacts on the state of the family. The 1903 Transvaal Immorality Ordinance No. 46, for instance, prohibited sexual relations between Europeans and “natives,” or essentially any non-white person.[10] Interestingly, though unsurprisingly, the law enforced more severe punishments—including longer and harsher imprisonment—for “native” men obstructing the law than for white women.[11] The same year, the Orange Free State Ordinance No. 11 and Natal Law No. 31 emerged with similar injunctions and followed with the 1908 Transvaal Act No. 16 reinforcing racial restrictions on sexual intercourse.[12] As apparent by provinces’ abundant legislations to restrict sexual partners, the South African governing councils shared unease over the rise of illegitimate sex and thereby the risk of illegitimate children, stereotypically associated with blacks and racial subordination.[13] Consequently, interracial sex jeopardize the white, middle-class family development.

Following the emergence of the colonial self-government, and the subsequent start of World War I, the white race became ever so vulnerable—at least according to Dr. William Darley-Hartley who reviewed topics of abortion, contraceptives, and maternal “white” duties for race preservation in the South African Medical Record.[14] Mirroring Dr. Darley-Hartley’s sentiments and movements in the United States and Germany, South African eugenics emphasized racial superiority and purity and, expectedly, acquired an especial negativity towards those of African descent.[15] Notions of “feeble-mindedness” classified mental disorders like epilepsy with prostitution and sexual precocity, which both introduced potential for disturbing the racial hierarchy through miscegenation.[16] Sterilization of the biologically ‘unfit’ then eliminated the budding materialization of a multiracial, colored state and protected the traditional family unit “as the basis of orderly society.”[17]

Concurrent with the escalation of eugenics, public debate heightened on the topic of formal sex education. Missionaries, on the one hand, sought to use education to mold an era of sexual morality and buttress the importance of family and motherhood, especially for women like the isililo who often had to support themselves.[18] On the other hand, public health officials hoped education reform would help alleviate the growing rate of sexually transmitted diseases, such as Syphilis which affected five times as many blacks as whites in 1939.[19] Sex education then arguably aimed to promote the total public’s health and to prevent the spread of venereal diseases. Organizations like the National Committee for Combating Venereal Disease, founded in 1917, certainly pressed the need for STD protection and prevention through early education alongside the state-administered Transvaal Council for Combating Venereal Disease.[20]

However, racial differences of sexual education reveal the anxious relationship between sexual freedom and nuclear structure of the family, specifically that of the white middle class. The Red Cross and Johannesburg Public Health Department released a pamphlet in 1934 to introduce topics of reproduction, correct heterosexuality, and fortification of the ‘race’ to a white, middle class audience.[21] The manual reads, “Nature has put into us this great desire to be the parents of children in order that the race to which we belong may continue in strength and in increasing numbers…it is your duty to help your race to progress.”[22] As obvious by the wording, “Facts About Ourselves” aims to reinforce racial distinction and strengthen ideas of white supremacy in the youth via family-oriented values. Procreation, as set by the manual, should comprise of a common objective of expanding ‘whiteness’ in families to bolster a stronger, racially-united white power. These segregationist ideas only propagated the eugenic sentiments evoked during WWI and the following 1927 Immorality Act, which banned interracial sex between white South Africans and black South Africans and later expanded to include all non-Europeans.[23] Unlike the ordinances passed prior to the Union of the South Africa establishment, which affected mainly female prostitutes and non-white men, this gender-neutral Act targeted all white South Africans.[24] The prohibition would remain largely intact and unrepealed until 1985, showcasing the crucial context of the period’s racially-driven sex legislation in reviewing sex education.[25]

For the first forty years of the twentieth century, South Africa experienced elevated concern over the general increase in sexual freedom, threatening the European-constructed hierarchy of races and the notion of a tight, composed family unit. Public debate over prostitution, eugenics, and sex education all shared root in anxiety over interracial sex, leading to several legislations prohibiting sexual relations between whites and other races. While this restlessness erupted in the early 1900s, it continued to cultivate into the latter half of the century and foreshadowed Apartheid discrimination just years later, spilling into racial tensions today.

[1] Beinart, William, and Saul Dubow. Segregation and Apartheid in Twentieth-Century South Africa. Routledge, 1995, pp.1-4.

[2] South African Native Affairs Commission. South African Native Affairs Commission 1903-1905. Cape Town Limited, 1905, http://www.archive.org/details/southafricannati00sout.

[3] Beinart, pp.47-48.

[4] League of Nations, Advisory Committee on Traffic in Women and Children, Study in Laws and Regulations with a View to Protecting Public Order and Health in Countries where the System of Licensed Houses has been Abolished, Geneva, 20 June 1930, pp.13-15. C.T.F.E.466(1), V.380.M.164.1930.IV.

[5] Gaitskell, Deborah. “Wailing for Purity.” Industrialisation and Social Change in South Africa, by Shula Marks, Longman, 1988, pp.338–357.

[6] Graham, Lucy Valerie. State of Peril: Race and Rape in South African Literature. Oxford University Press, 2015, pp.45.

[7] Cornwell, Gareth. “George Webb Hardy’s the Black Periland the Social Meaning of ‘Black Peril’ in Early Twentieth €Century South Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 22, no. 3, 1996, pp.441–453. JSTOR, doi:10.1080/03057079608708504, pp.442.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, pp.446.

[10] Ordinances of the Transvaal, 1903: With Index, Tables of Contents, and Tables of Laws &c. Repealed and Amended by These Ordinances. Govt. Print. and Stationary Office, 1904, pp.322.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jackson, Will, and Emily Manktelow. Subverting Empire: Deviance and Disorder in the British Colonial World. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp.201.

[13] Reekie, Gail. Measuring Immorality: Social Inquiry and the Problem of Illegitimacy. Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp.66-84.

[14] Klausen, Susanne. “’For the Sake of the Race’: Eugenic Discourses of Feeblemindedness and Motherhood in the South African Medical Record, 1903-1926.” Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, 1997, pp.32–35. JSTOR, doi:10.1080/03057079708708521.

[15] Zuberi, Tukufu. Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie. University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp.70.

[16] Dubow, Saul. Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa. Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp.148; Klausen, pp.40.

[17] Paul, Diane B., et al. Eugenics at the Edges of Empire: New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp.294; Jochelson, Karen. Colour of Disease: Syphilis and Racism in South Africa 1880-1950. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp.63.

[18] Gaitskell, pp.348.

[19] Kenyon, Chris Richard, et al. “The Global Epidemiology of Syphilis in the Past Century: A Systematic Review Based on Antenatal Syphilis Prevalence.” PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, vol. 10, no. 5, 2016. National Center for Biotechnology Information, doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0004711.

[20] Jochelson, pp. 85-6; “Sex Education: Fighting Ignorance and Disease”, Child Welfare, Dec. 1924, pp.8.

[21] West, Riddiford P. H. Facts about Ourselves for Growing Boys and Girls. Public Health Department, South African Red Cross Society, 1934.

[22] Ibid., pp.10.

[23] Union of South Africa, “Immorality Act, Act No 5 of 1927.” Immorality Act, Act No 5 of 1927, Government Printer, 1927. http://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/immorality-act,-act-no-5-of-1927.

[24] Jackson, pp.201.

[25] Boyle, Brendan. “South Africa to Repeal Laws on Mixed-Race Sex, Marriage.” United Press International, UPI, 15 Apr. 1985, http://www.upi.com/Archives/1985/04/15/South-Africa-to-repeal-laws-on-mixed-race-sex-marriage/1227482389200/.


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