Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Merry Wives of Zuma

Tim’s heart-wrenching post about the fate of so many Thai girls stirred something in my mind pertinent to South Africa.

It is not about young girls who are forced into the sex trade either physically or by force of circumstance. Rather it is about different perceptions. And which of the perceptions is right.

For some time I have been intrigued by the fact that the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, has been married five times, three of which marriages are running concurrently. In Western parlance, he’s a polygamist! Frankly I am not sure what to think about this.

On the one hand, Zuma has a constitutional right to have as many wives as he wants. The Constitutional Court has ruled that the traditional practice of having multiple wives fits in with the national constitution. And there is no doubt that the majority view in South Africa is that there is nothing wrong with that. A Black woman I spoke to recently expressed distaste for the practice at a personal level, but acceptance at a general level.

“If he has three wives,” she said, “that’s his problem. But my husband is not going to do the same thing.”

There is also no doubt that the women he marries do so out of free choice. And why wouldn’t they? He is a charismatic, powerful man – and very energetic for a man in his mid-60s. No matter what their previous status, being the wife of a country’s president is going to be a better situation. Just think of the perks.

On the other hand, I think that Zuma’s polygamy sets a bad example for the young of the country. But immediately I say that, I wonder whether my Western-centric view of the world has any applicability to countries outside the European-influenced zone. Why should different cultures not have different morals? And if they can have different morals, one may disagree with them, but why be critical of them?
I don’t find thinking about this issue very easy at all.

Of course, these are traditional marriages – that is why the law allows them. And they are definitely male-oriented. I’ve never heard of a woman having multiple husbands and wonder whether that would even be legal in South Africa. And I wonder too whether I, a White male, would be allowed to have multiple wives.

In addition to being perplexed about polygamy, I also am intrigued. How does it work, in reality? Do the wives have a pecking order, so to speak? How does Wife #1 feel as her husband marries Wife #3? How does Husband divide his time between the Wives? Do all the Wives live in the same house? Do they get on? And what if they don’t? (I feel a mystery coming on here – Murder in the House of Zuma).
There is also an issue around Zuma’s polygamous marriages that I find very distasteful – namely the tone of so many reports in the West of his latest marriage. The tone is that Africa is inferior, primitive, and its inhabitants immoral savages. As an African I resent that.

I’m interested in finding out what you think about these issues.

Stan - Thursday

(Photos: Ndaba Dlamini)


  1. You have thrown out a bit of a mind-bender, Stan. As you know, the US has had issues with polygamy as presented by the Mormons in their search for land and statehood. A population of 60,000 was required for a territory to petition for statehood. The Mormons reached that number easily and petitioned in the mid-1800's. Statehood was denied in large part because of polygamy. A marriage entered into legally in one state is legal in all states; what would happen if Mormons left Utah and brought their families and multiple wives into other states? The Judaeo-Christian ethic would be attacked, laws regarding inheritance would be thrown into confusion, and the Mormon church would have a very difficult time coping with the number of men wanting to convert.

    Polygamy was banned by the Mormon church in 1890 and Utah became a state in 1896. Being banned didn't mean it disappeared. Fundamentalists believe that the church caved in to pressure from the US government and they maintain that they alone are keeping to the religion as founded by Joseph Smith.

    Dan should jump in here and share what he learned about polygamy in the 21st century when he was researching BLOOD ATONEMENT. The fundamentalists who practice polygamy in Utah now are an embarrassment to those in the main stream. Multiple wives is a theory that in practice only benefits the men. Societies that practiced polygamy did so to provide male children who would grow to protect the family, the tribe. Polygamy today is less about children being born than it is about the begetting of those children.

    Are President Zuma's wives of his generation?
    There wouldn't be much point to the privilege if it didn't mean that the wives get progressively younger. In the west, stories about polygamists center on wives who are barely out of childhood and their roles as servants/slaves. Most people who know anything about polygamy have their information from the Elizabeth Smart case, a 14 year old Mormon who was kidnapped from her bedroom to become a wife of a fundamentalist lunatic. She was found after 9 months, making her one of the most fortunate children in the world.

    To try to understand a culture that has polygamy protected by the Constitution is nearly impossible. Are these wives protected under the law? What happens to them when the husband dies? Are they integrated back into society? Do the first wife and her children have a higher status than the subsequent wives and children? How does the husband divide his time among them? There is a saying that two women can't share a kitchen; how can they share a husband? There aren't too many stories about first and second wives getting along when there has been a divorce. Jealousy and fear must always be present. As women become older, do the wives become younger? If one woman gives birth to daughters but no sons, does that change her status?

    I think the moral aspect of polygamy lies in the treatment of the women and children. No matter how far a society is removed from western culture and mores, that society is only as good as the manner in which they treat those without power. Women have only recently, in terms of the history of the world, been in positions from which they can protect themselves. We know only too well how women are treated in most of the world. South Africa is a modern country giving credibility to a practice that has largely disappeared. If anyone can judge the practices in South Africa it should be in light of the treatment of women and children.

    This isn't about "The King and I" or HBO's "Big Love".

  2. South Africa has perhaps one of the best constitutions of any country. Being drafted in the 1990's it has benefited from other countries' ones. It protects men, women, and children. And it protects gays and all religions. It is very comprehensive. That is one reason why it's acceptance of polygamy is strange.

    He married his first wife in 1973. His latest is in her mid-thirties - 30 years young than him, but nothing like some of the Mormon marriages.

    South Africa probably has more women in high political and business positions than most countries too.

    I spoke to a Zulu woman yesterday about Zuma. She was scathing in her condemnation - for setting a bad example to young men and boys, as well as of the fact that he has had a number of children out fo wedlock. He has 18 children apparently.

  3. Hi Stan,

    'Murder in the House of Zuma' sounds like you could have a blast writing it, and I can have a blast reading it.

    I hope you go for it!

  4. In the United States, black society is matriarchal. Obama has brought this up in more than a few speeches, telling men that fatherhood goes well beyond the biological act. Athletes and entertainers are the role models and their very public lives are about multiple children with multiple partners, none of whom they live with for very long.

    Are there many men is South Africa who try to emulate the leader? Are fathers active in the lives of their children?

    I can't imagine that too many independent women are willing to be in relationships that are so anachronistic. Polygamy may have been the traditional form of marriage in the past but the complexities of making it work in society at large would seem overwhelming. Does each mother discipline her own children or are the rules of behavior set down by the father?

    Zuma wins points on choosing women who are not children. In that they are of an age to know what they are getting into, they are not exploited to the degree that children as wives are. A year or so ago, a fundamentalist Mormon community was raided because of rumors of underage brides. All the women wore the same style dress and wore their hair in the same way. None of the wives were under age so the group was allowed to go back to their community but it was an insight into the physical and mind control under which they lived.

    Some of Zuma's children must be adults now. Have any of the men followed their father's example?

    Christian missionaries imposed Christian values and practices in the countries in which they established themselves. Polygamy would certainly not fit into that frame of reference. I think that often westerners moved too fast, not understanding the ties that bind families outside the western religious and social practices. To paraphrase the Hippocratic oath, it must do no harm to the members of the body, the family, then it isn't an outsiders place to judge.

  5. My vast experience of the world includes Robert Van Gulik's novels about Judge Dee. That Tang Dynasty magistrate had, I think, three wives, and they existed in a kind of idyllic court, helping one another with domestic jobs, and so on.

    I seem to recall that the wives were ranked, but I don't remember what privileges and rights being Number One, Two or Three Lady entailed.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  6. If I can jump in beth suggested, I did a bit of research into polygamy for my last book, which involved the Mormon church. beth covers much of what I might say. In fundamentalist communities polygamy is pretty much the preserve of men of a certain age. They seem to set their sights on certain girls and marry them at whichever age they deem appropriate. These young women will defer to the other senior wives. In order to preserve their right to choose the elder males will chase away younger men. Young women in their mid to late teens would rather date marry someone of their own age group than a man forty or so years older. The elders know this and root out the competition as it were, so called 'Lost Boys', who are split from their families and turfed out of town.

    The Mormons are understandably embarrassed by their polygamist past. Though during the mid to late 19th century it was the best recruiting agent they had. Men came from miles around, lured by the promise of plural wives. When the US Gov started to put pressure on the church to renounce the practice, many of these men or their descendants were unwilling to give it up, hence the fundamentalist offshoots, many of which were set up just so a few blokes could carry on having multiple wives and the first choice of the young women of the parish.

    I learned the other day about an Afghan warlord who has 15 wives. He plays the Taliban and US and British military forces off each other. One way of doing business with him is to supply him with Viagra. He welcomes it, as well he might.