GENEVA – Nobody knew how dangerous the relationship between Paula Merrington and her husband Gary van Breda was until she mentioned it during a candidate forum while she was running for alderman.
They met in Cape Town, South Africa. She was a white woman and he was – in the vernacular of apartheid in 1988 – a colored person.
“Apartheid was still the law of the land,” van Breda said.
Apartheid – meaning “separateness" in Afrikaans – was a system of institutionalized racial segregation.
The irony here is that van Breda himself is descended from one of the founding families of the white branch of Africaner people in South Africa. They arrived in 1719. His ancestry is a mix of black and white people that predate formal apartheid.
When van Breda and Merrington first began dating in 1991, it was illegal under the Immorality Act, which made sexual relationships between white Europeans and anyone who was not white a crime.
“We had to pretend we were not dating,” van Breda said.
“There were no public displays of affection,” Merrington said. “It was still on the law books and the police – it was hit and miss how they would respond.”
Merrington and van Breda got married on March 12, 1994 while the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was still the law of the land.
But the apartheid system was coming apart, amid protests and other nations putting sanctions on South Africa.
“We got married outside, under a big, beautiful tree,” Merrington said.
They voted in the nation’s first democratic elections in April 1994 – the first in which citizens of all races were allowed to participate.
Then they moved to the U.S. to follow job opportunities and to get away from the vestiges of apartheid.
"We had lived with it and we were just tired," van Breda said.
First living in New Orleans for three years, then Seattle for nine years, then Atlanta for eight, they have now called Geneva home for the past five. Their son Shaun, 19, is a college student, and their daughter, Grace, 16, is a junior at Geneva High School.
Merrington was a Red Cross nurse and a pediatric ICU nurse, but currently works as a contractor for FONA.
Van Breda is McDonald’s director of global food safety, and is currently working on a master’s degree in food science with a concentration on pathogenic microbiology.
Their story seems to mirror a frightening past that is being resurrected with a current rise in white nationalism and racism in general.
“It doesn’t surprise me that this is happening now,” van Breda said. “Why would it have gone away?”
‘There was no crossing over’
In 1988, van Breda was studying microbiology and biochemistry at the University of Cape Town.
He and Merrington met because he needed a place to stay that was closer to campus.
“Certain areas were restricted for black, colored, Asian and white students in transportation, housing, schools, jobs and marriage and relationships in general,” van Breda said. “The off-campus housing where I was living was a part of Cape Town designated for colored people (that was) pretty far from the university. There was no crossing over."
South Africa was in a crisis in the 1980s, he said.
To put things in historical perspective: It was not uncommon for him to be on a bus, on his way to class, when it was suddenly turned around because there were tires on fire in the road or people being shot with tear gas or rubber bullets.
The violence was such that he had trouble focusing on his studies in what was a daily struggle just to go back and forth to school. So he looked for on-campus housing and saw an ad for an available room very close to the university.
“I just took a stab without really having any expectation. So I knocked on the door and Paula answered,” van Breda said. “I said, ‘Well, I really need a place to stay.’ ... I was expecting, ‘Well, we don’t have accommodation for people like you.’”
As van Breda prepared to be refused, Merrington told him, “Well, if my dog likes you, maybe we have a chance.”
Her dog Gia was a rescue mutt, a big Alsatian-mix who liked van Breda. The dog used to accompany him to class.
“I wanted a good person to share a home with,” Merrington said. “I did not care about anything else.”
'It was a police state'
Van Breda was born in South Africa, while Merrington was from Zimbabwe, born there during the civil war, from 1965 to 1980.
She left in 1980 to go to nursing school in Cape Town.
As it turned out, they were both politically active.
“The thing that really brought us together was because there was an escalation of violence in South Africa at that point. Paula and I were part of an organization that provided support for protest marches that were illegal," van Breda said.
Merrington belonged to the Health Workers Society, founded in 1980, one of several health organizations that advocated for a democratic health system in South Africa.
They put together little first-aid kits that Merrington and others used to provide medical support for those injured during apartheid protests.
“It was a police state,” Merrington said. “They had this law that you could not have … more than six people congregating at one time. … There was no free press at this time. It was a state-controlled media, television and newspapers. Journalists were put in prison all the time and they disappeared."
Because of that, details of what happened was word of mouth, oral history, she said.
Music, art, poetry and plays were used to protest apartheid, something the government could not control, Merrington said.
‘We could hear the bullets all around us’
They were friends first, but eventually – and dangerously – they became romantically involved. So there was this double danger of breaking the apartheid law and of going to protests against apartheid to provide aid to protesters.
“Gary went to hear a famous religious leader and we were waiting outside a church to go in and he got hit across the face,” Merrington said.
“They smashed my face and my nose was broken,” van Breda said.
Another time, they went to a funeral for two activists.
“Police arrived and told us to disperse ... and they just started firing with no warning,” Merrington said.
“We ran to a church and within seconds, they fired tear gas into the church. We went out … to a driveway breezeway and down the driveway, maybe 200 yards away, police were pointing guns at us,” Merrington said. “They just started firing at Gary and me.”
“We could hear the bullets all around us,” van Breda said.
An anti-apartheid march on Sept. 2, 1989 in Cape Town, was called The Purple March because police fired water cannons with purple dye on thousands of protesters with the intent of identifying them later for arrest. Merrington and van Breda were both sprayed purple.
“They said, ‘The purple shall govern,’” Merrington said. “It was a play on words: ‘The people shall govern.’ … On this particular day, a protester took control of the water cannon and he sprayed government buildings."
As they were running away, someone pulled them into St. George’s Cathedral, she said.
“Bishop Desmond Tutu was actually … grabbing people off the street and giving them clean clothes" so they would not be identified by the purple spray, and be arrested by police, Merrington said.
Considering the current times with a rise of racism and white nationalism, Merrington said, “Have we learned nothing from the last 100 years?”
“Gary and I nearly lost our lives fighting (racism). … That is why we are passionate about being out there,” Merrington said. “You see little micro-aggressions. Little things. People laughing at 'slightly' racist jokes. And we’ve lived with this threatening our lives. It’s not funny. It’s real.”
Van Breda said he did not expect racism go to away – then or now.
“The only change in our lives was that the law went away. But people with with that type of attitude toward people of color still remain,” van Breda said. “Having said that, I think that I’m pretty inspired by the new generation, as I talk to people who are my son's and my daughter’s age and younger. There is less entrenched racism.”