Dr Zureena Desai speaks for the first time about humiliation of Immorality Act

Dr. Zureena Desai speaking at the University of Stellenbosch Museum

Dr. Zureena Desai speaking at the University of Stellenbosch Museum

Published Jun 8, 2024


by Hannelie Booyens

Stellenbosch University (SU) recently hosted an event to honour Dr Zureena Desai, 79, an iconic figure who, for the first time publicly, recounted her harrowing experience under apartheid.

Desai, who has lived in Ireland most of her adult life, was visibly moved by the standing ovation she received from the audience.

Jonathan Jansen, Distinguished Professor of Education at SU, hosted the event at the SU Museum. He played a pivotal role in this recognition of Desai, whose ordeal under apartheid exposed the regime's cruelty.

The event's inception came from a suggestion by Dr Susanne Klausen, a researcher and professor of Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies at Pennsylvania State University, who has been in regular contact with Desai over the past six years.

Klausen convinced Desai to return to South Africa for this significant recognition at SU.

An Arhive pic of Dr. Zureena Desai and dr. John Blacking

Older South Africans may recall the infamous 1969 images on the front pages of newspapers of Desai, a medical doctor, and her white partner, Wits University academic Dr John Blacking, who were arrested and prosecuted under the apartheid-era Immorality Act.

This law criminalised interracial relationships and was intended to uphold racial segregation. Desai and Blacking's trial made headlines worldwide.

The couple were found guilty of “conspiring” to have sex and given suspended sentences before leaving South Africa to settle in Ireland.

A newspaper clipping of the case at the time

For over 50 years, Desai remained silent about her experiences. A chance encounter between Jansen and Klausen at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in 2023 led to a decision to recognise Desai's contribution to South African history.

Adv. George Bizos, left, represented the couple at their trial

Klausen's introduction at the SU event detailed the public shaming and intense scrutiny Desai and Blacking endured, highlighting their dignified resistance.

She recounted the almost comical nature of their arrest, with police officers hiding for hours in trees outside Blacking's house in Parkhurst in Johannesburg to gather evidence.

After the trial, Desai defiantly said: “My only crime is that I was born with a complexion two shades darker than white. My guilt was not immorality.”

Desai and Blacking emerged from the experience as certified criminals, but morally victorious, completely unbowed by their convictions, Klausen concluded.

“The cumulative effect was to further delegitimise the Immorality Act and apartheid ideology at home and internationally.

“The couple were fully aware that the trial had been a failure for the government, and took great pleasure in the knowledge that it was they who shamed the National Party, and not the other way around.”

Klausen noted that Desai's story is made even more remarkable by the fact that she is the daughter of Amina Desai, the longest serving female Indian political prisoner during apartheid.

In 1996, aged 76, Amina was a witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in 2013 she was posthumously awarded South Africa's national Order of Luthuli.

Before taking to the stage to interview Desai, Jansen shared the profound impact Desai's defiance had on him as a young coloured man coming of age during apartheid. The case changed the course of South Africa's history, Jansen said.

“I don't think apartheid fell because of one big thing. It fell because of all such cases chipping away at the certainties of the silly system. You and John were amazingly courageous. I want to thank you for standing your ground in such a beautiful and dignified way. Thank you for your contribution to this country.”

Desai explained that her resistance was rooted not in political activism but

in a personal sense of worth instilled by her family. She recounted the absurdity of their arrest.

“When they arrested us, Major Coetzee personally took us to the Hillbrow police station. We got there in the middle of the night. He said in Afrikaans: ‘This is John Blacking. He has been arrested. And this is Zureena Desai. She's a doctor.' And they put us in the same cell! It was so completely ridiculous.”

The support from family and friends carried her and Blacking through the difficult weeks of the trial, Desai said.

“The tight-knit Indian community in Roodepoort where my family lived was incredibly supportive. We received messages and letters from all over the world, also from many Afrikaans people.”

She revealed that the lenient sentencing in their case was likely due to political pressure, as the government wished to avoid further international ridicule.

Desai stayed silent all these years to respect Blacking's family, not wanting to cause them pain. She decided to speak out now, encouraged by her aunt, to share the harsh realities of apartheid with young people. “My aunt said: ‘Go and talk. It's important that young people know what it was like'.”

Desai also shared her view of a shared humanity, regardless of race, drawing from her experiences and education under apartheid.

After their exile, Desai and Blacking continued their academic and professional careers in Northern Ireland, raising a family of four daughters before Blacking's death in 1990.

Dr Michael Hutchinson, Desai's current husband, accompanied her to Stellenbosch. He shared anecdotes about her enduring connection to South Africa, including her passion for rugby.

Jansen concluded by praising Desai's family support and her role as a trailblazer and role model. He thanked her for reminding South Africans of a dark but ultimately hope-inspiring chapter in the country's history.

Weekend Argus