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Dr Zureena Desai breaks silence on apartheid-era ordeal
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing (Hannelie Booyens)
Published: 10/06/2024

​Stellenbosch University (SU) was honoured to welcome an iconic figure this week, when Dr Zureena Desai (79) spoke for the first time publicly about the harrowing experience that made her famous during the height of apartheid.

Dressed in an elegant black suit and striking red scarf, Desai, who has lived in Northern Ireland for most of her life, was visibly moved when she received a standing ovation from the Stellenbosch audience.

Prof Jonathan Jansen, Distinguished Professor of Education at SU, was the host of the event held at the SU Museum in honour of Desai. Jansen played a pivotal role in facilitating the long overdue recognition of a woman who had been at the heart of a furore that exposed the cruelty and absurdity of apartheid legislation.

The idea for the event was born when researcher Susanne Klausen, Brill Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Pennsylvania State University, suggested formal recognition for Desai during a conversation with Jansen. Klausen, who has been in regular contact with Desai over the past six years, convinced her to come to South Africa and liaised with her throughout the planning process.

Older South Africans are bound to remember the black and white photos of Desai, a medical doctor, and her white partner, Wits University academic Dr John Blacking, on the front pages of newspapers 55 years ago. On 11 January 1969, the Security Police arrested the couple at Blacking's home in Parkhurst, Johannesburg. They were the most high-profile couple ever prosecuted under the apartheid era's notorious Immorality Act. This law criminalised interracial relationships, aiming to uphold the apartheid regime's racial purity doctrine.

Desai and Blacking were prosecuted in Johannesburg Magistrate's Court for contravening Section 16 of the Immorality Act, which criminalised heterosexual desire between white and black South Africans. For weeks, the couple's relationship was scrutinised and condemned in a trial that made headlines around the world. They were found guilty of 'conspiring' to have sex and given suspended sentences before leaving South Africa to settle in Ireland.

For more than fifty years, Desai kept a low profile and never spoke publicly about her experience. A chance encounter at STIAS (Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Science) in 2023 between Jansen and Klausen laid the groundwork for the event at SU to recognise Desai for her part in an historical crossroads.

What makes Desai's story even more remarkable is the fact that she's the daughter of Amina Desai, the longest serving female Indian political prisoner during apartheid. Amina was arrested in 1971 and accused of conspiring with Ahmed Timol for furthering the aims of the then-illegal African National Congress. 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.

Policemen in a tree

Klausen provided a compelling introduction detailing the intense scrutiny and public shaming Desai and Blacking endured, noting their dignified resistance and how they turned the trial into a critique of apartheid rather than a personal defeat. Her description of the two lovers' almost comical arrest astounded the audience. “That January night in 1969 has become legendary as the police would later testify in court in detail. The officers spent hours outside John's house that night waiting for the right moment to barge into their lives as Major Johan Coetzee had assumed the couple would have sex that night at some point. So, he directed the police to wait for a long time because he wanted to obtain as much evidence as possible on the couple's bodies, their bedsheets and clothing. The police spent hours hiding between fruit trees while peering inside their bedroom window, listening at the ventilation grill above the bedroom window and most infamously, climbing up a tree across the street to see into the house."

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."

Ultimately, this trial was more than just titillating entertainment, Klausen pointed out. “It was also an important episode in the 35 years that the apartheid regime punished South Africans who expressed desire across the colour line, although not in the way the government had expected. On the face of it, the case was a great success for the National Party – another mixed couple was convicted, and South Africans were taught another lesson about the dangers of daring to be intimate across the white/black race line.

“But the case was a Pyrrhic victory. The extensive reportage of the trial put on full display at home and abroad Afrikaner nationalism's puritanical, yet prurient obsession with sex within South Africa. Both opponents and supporters of apartheid were profoundly disgusted by the whole episode. The methods the police had utilised sparked fury and ridicule. Reactions abroad were mainly disbelief and scorn. Everywhere, people were impressed by the couple's demeanour, their apparent fearlessness throughout the saga."

Desai and Blacking emerged from the experience as certified criminals, but morally victorious, completely unbowed by their convictions, Klausen added. “The cumulative effect was to further delegitimise the Immorality Act and apartheid ideology at home and internationally. The couple was fully aware that the trial had been a failure for the government, and they took great pleasure in the knowledge that it was they who shamed the National Party, and not the other way around."

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."​Hannelie_banner.jpg

Together in a cell

Jansen asked Desai whether her resistance at the time was rooted in political activism. She explained although her family had been politically liberal, her stance wasn't overtly political. “My father had always said to me, you're as good as anybody in the world. I was too good to have somebody else tell me I wasn't good enough. In that sense, it wasn't political. I mean, here was a man who was attracted to me whom I was also attracted too. And that was that."

After the initial shock of their arrest, Desai said she and Blacking turned to each other and said: “It will all be okay."

“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 tightknit 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."

Desai said before the judgement she was very nervous and certain they would be sent to jail. “I told our advocate, George Bizos, 'I really don't want to go to jail'." During the judgement, the case took an unexpected turn, probably because of political intervention, Desai suggested. “While Magistrate De Wet was giving his verdict and talking about how defiant we had been, there was a sudden break in the proceedings by a clerk of the court. Magistrate De Wet told him: 'Ek verstaan nie.' (I don't understand). He was told he had to take a phone call. When he came back from the call, he simply said: 'I'm sentencing you to six months suspended.' Bang. Finished. I think it was pressure from outside. Because the last thing the white South African government needed at that stage was for us to go to jail. They would have looked ridiculous. They were ridiculous, but they would have been made to look even more ridiculous."

Reminder to young people

Desai said a major reason for staying silent all these years was out of respect for Blacking's family as he had been married before. She didn't want to cause pain to Blacking's first wife and children, she explained. “We had a good relationship. The children came to visit us after we moved to Ireland and Paula and I exchanged Christmas cards. I was going to write to her when I heard she was ill. But I never did, to my regret. You always regret the things you don't do. And I think that was one of the reasons I never would talk about it. The reason I'm here today is because I spoke to my aunt, who unfortunately can't be here today. She said: 'Go and talk. It's important that young people know what it was like.' So that's why I'm here today."

Asked about her feelings towards Afrikaners who at the time privately commiserated, but publicly remained silent, Desai said she prefers to focus on the shared humanity of people. “These were all just people. At the Congress School I attended in my youth I was taught by the anti-apartheids activist Bram Fischer's wife Molly and daughter Ilse who were Afrikaners. These people were our heroes. I wasn't frustrated by anybody, because who knows what pressures they're under. I think a lot of it has to do with education. There's always going to be tribalism, racism or antisemitism. The best way to avoid that is for us all to be educated together so we get to know each other."

After Blacking left South Africa in November 1969, he was immediately barred from returning to the country. He took up a post as a professor of social anthropology at Queen's University in Belfast. Desai left South Africa five weeks later and eventually joined Blacking in Northern Ireland. In Belfast, she specialised in haematology. She worked as a consultant haematologist and teacher at Queen's University and later became a consultant in haematology in a joint appointment between Queen's and the Royal Victoria Hospital. Desai and Blacking married and had four daughters between 1974 in 1987 before he died of cancer in 1990.

Desai later married Dr Michael Hutchinson, who accompanied her on her visit to Stellenbosch. Hutchinson told the audience that his wife's South African roots are still strong. “She's become a fanatical rugby fan. She always watches South African teams."

Paying tribute to Desai's legacy, Jansen said what struck him was the strength of her family support, but also the impact she had as a role model. “In the 1960s, there were very few non-white women who were medical doctors. And you came from a very solid middle-class family who had a strong political sense, even though they might not have been activist in the streets. I think this is why you weren't cowering in front of these silly people. You had a strong sense of yourself."

Jansen hailed Desai as an inspiration to young people and thanked her for “coming all the way from Ireland" to remind South Africans of a dark but ultimately hope-inspiring chapter in the country's history.

  • Dr Klausen has written a chapter about the Desai and Blacking trial for her forthcoming book called Criminal Desire: Nationalism, Gender, and the Criminalization of Interracial Desire in Apartheid South Africa. It will be published by Oxford University Press in 2025.