September 09, 1985 12:00 PM

On the wedding day, hundreds of well-wishers lined the roads leading through the black South African township of St. Wendolin’s to the local parish church. People clambered onto rooftops for a better view, while newspaper photographers had to climb trees for a shot of the happy couple. As Suzanne Leclerc, 28, and Protas Madlala, 30, arrived, a pair of police vans gunned their engines and swerved in front of the car, “just to show us,” says Suzanne. But beyond flexing their muscles, the enforcers of apartheid held their peace as Protas and Suzanne became husband and wife, South Africa’s first legally married interracial couple in years.

They were allowed to marry because that nation’s laws banning sexual relations and cohabitation between the races had been repealed the day before. But Protas and Suzanne still consider their marriage a symbolic challenge to Pretoria’s racist policies. “Although our wedding meant a great deal to our community and everyone has made us feel welcome,” says Protas, “it doesn’t mean that we have adjusted to the South African situation.”

Indeed Suzanne, an American from Cumberland, R.I. and Protas, a Zulu born and raised in St. Wendolin’s, must struggle every day of their new life together with laws that order where they can live, which buses they may ride, where they can see a movie, which beaches they can use. The black township where they live has no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no hot or cold running water. “It is an abnormal situation and to adjust is to become abnormal yourself,” says Suzanne. “You would become an active participant in their dehumanization program.” At the same time they are careful not to defy the system too flagrantly. “One must assess how much one can do in this country,” says Protas. “I wouldn’t like to push ourselves against the wall. If we’re dead, we haven’t achieved much.”

Suzanne was working toward her master’s degree in physical anthropology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. when she met Protas at the library of American University in January 1984. He was there on a scholarship from the Lutheran World Federation to do graduate work in communications. Having spent three years with the Peace Corps in central Africa, Suzanne was curious about South Africa, and what began as friendship turned to courtship.

That June she took Protas to meet her parents, and the following Christmas they became engaged. Suzanne’s father, who ran an appliance store before his death last November, gave his blessing, as did her mother. “My family was used to me doing strange things for a Catholic girl from Cumberland,” says Suzanne, who before joining the Peace Corps took off to backpack through Europe. “The marriage was no big deal.” Protas’ parents are dead, but his two brothers, his sisters-in-law and his 100-year-old grandmother were unfazed. “The only problem was South Africa,” says Protas, “and whether we would fit into the system.”

Under the 1966 Group Areas Act, Suzanne and Protas must live in a black township. Home is a three-room, cement block, tin-roofed house built 40 years ago by Protas’ father, who was a laborer in a Durban candy factory. Protas is forbidden to be in white areas between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., and he must carry his pass at all times. Failure to produce the pass on demand is punishable by five days in prison. Suzanne has a hard time just getting to the closest major shopping area when Protas can’t drive her. She can’t take the bus, she says, “because white buses don’t come here and I would not be allowed to ride on a black bus.” The recent upsurge of violence has added to their worries. “When I go to sleep at night and think that the house can be petrol-bombed,” says Suzanne, “it doesn’t make me want to get up in the morning and start a vegetable garden.”

In their relationship, Suzanne and Protas insist, color was never a factor. “I don’t see her as white and she doesn’t see me as black,” explains Protas. “She sees me as someone who has darker skin and I see her as someone who has lighter skin.” Adds Suzanne, “Things like race, ethnicity, religion are different ways of packaging human life. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I never had any doubts.”

She has had to adjust to some of her new community’s cultural expectations, however, and her new sister-in-law has been coaching her. “The women are anxious that I learn to make Zulu beer and serve the menfolk to show what a good makoti [Zulu for new bride] I am,” she says. “They expect me to get fat to prove that my husband is treating me well.”

But Suzanne doesn’t intend to play the stay-at-home. She is trying to land a part-time job as a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Natal in Durban, which will supplement Protas’ $300-a-month salary as an assistant director of the St. Wendolin’s Development Center. And both are coping with unexpected celebrity. “When we go shopping together, Africans dance around us and ululate,” says Suzanne. “They say, ‘You’re smashing apartheid.’ ”

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