Two of President Zuma's wives, MaNthuli Zuma (L) and Thobeka Madiba Zuma, greet each other at the State of the Nation Address at the opening of Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa on 9 February 2012.
Good times for the world’s most prominent polygamist: South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma is about to marry for the sixth time. The presidential team’s take on the event seems fairly low-key, and not just because they’ve been through it all five times before. The wedding is just “formalising” the relationship, a spokesman says: long-term fiancée Gloria Bongi Ngema already shares First Lady-like duties, such as accompanying the president on official trips, with Mr Zuma’s three other current wives.
Polygamy isn’t the most common topic of Australian dinnertime conversation; when it does come up, the reaction is likely to be schoolkid sniggers, or at most mild shock. Even in South Africa, where polygamy is legal, popular news website The Sunday Times broke the president’s news with the mildly salacious headline “Zuma to marry – again!” However, Mr Zuma has a less excitable spin on things: he has frequently pointed out in the past that multiple partners are a traditional part of Zulu culture. They can help create political alliances between families and they’re a handy status symbol, signifying that a man has the resources to support several households.
President Zuma's and his latest wife, Thobeka Madiba Zuma.
Mr Zuma also argues women are better off under polygamy than the kind of straying more common in the west. "There are plenty of politicians who have mistresses and children that they hide so as to pretend they're monogamous," he once said in a TV interview. "I prefer to be open. I love my wives and I'm proud of my children."
Meanwhile the first Mrs Zuma, Sizakele Khumalo, has also defended polygamy. “It’s a Zulu custom and if there’s respect between the husband and the wives and among the wives themselves, and if he’s able to treat us equally, then it’s not hard,” she told the Wall Street Journal.
But if polygamy means good times for all involved, why is this great social plus so rarely officially extended to women? In a 1998 survey of over 1000 societies by the University of Wisconsin, just 186 were monogamous. Some 453 had occasional polygyny [men marrying multiple partners] and in another 588 it was quite common. Women took multiple partners in just four. And in some cases, wives are shared between brothers or fathers and sons – in other words, these women had multiple partners for the convenience of men.
And while we’re on the subject of convenience: Mr Zuma may be a supporter of polygamy, but that doesn’t mean he sticks to the rules. Cheating on your wives is just as unacceptable in Zulu society as it is in monogamous cultures, yet Mr Zuma’s extramarital activities in recent years have included fathering a child out of wedlock and having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman, an event which saw him in court on rape charges, although he was later acquitted.
In Africa, the HIV/AIDS crisis is a major reason for women to reject polygamy: one wife has little or no control over the sexual behaviour of the other women in the relationship. But beyond this life-or-death issue lurks a more universal one: what’s in it for the wives?
Given that people fetishise everything from feet to farting, it seems only fair to assume there are some women who enjoy polygamous life. And there are a million reasons why a woman in any culture might decide she’d prefer to share her partner than lose him altogether. But even Sizkele Khumalo sounds suspiciously like she’s merely putting up with circumstances as she finds them. Not all of Mr Zuma’s wives have been so accepting: Nkosazana Dlamini divorced him in 1998, citing “irreconcilable differences”, while Kate Mantsho committed suicide in 2000, reportedly using her suicide note to bar her ex-husband from her funeral and describing their relationship as “24 years of hell”.
According to academic Miriam Zeitzen, African polygamy is changing: Zuma-style families are becoming less common, while “informal polygamous practices such as "outside wives," where a man has both an official and unofficial wife” – what you or I or Dominique Strauss-Kahn might call a mistress - are on the rise. But for Jacob Zuma, she argues, formal polygamy is part of his political persona, lending him power and a connection to African traditions frowned upon by colonial powers. And with a polygamous president in charge, the practice seems unlikely to disappear any time soon. That hasn’t stopped South African NGOs such as Gender Links from campaigning hard against the practice; but in the meantime, we’ll have to hope that South Africa’s newest First Lady – or Fourth Lady – has as good a time living polygamously as her husband seems to.