SOUTH Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has hinted he may be ready to take a fifth wife to accompany him through old age, according to a widely-disseminated local media report.
During a visit to a Durban township Tuesday in KwaZulu-Natal, the 72-year-old said in Zulu “Angakayakhi indlu yokugugela… laba ngisabathathile nje” (I do have wives but I’m yet to marry my last one).
The crowd, most of them elderly - and thus of a generation when polygamy was the norm - laughed and cheered, The Star said Wednesday.
Zuma, who on Sunday said he was in “perfect condition” after a stay in hospital in June, had earlier given a speech about the need to respect and care for older people.
Sihawu Ngubane, a professor at KwaZulu-Natal University, was quoted by the newspaper as saying it was fairly standard among Zulu people for a man who practises polygamy to take a last wife for his last years, sometimes the younger sister of one of his wives.
“They call the last wife ‘indlu yokugugela’ (the home in which I will age in) because the responsibility of looking after the husband in their old age predominantly lies with the junior wife, who is often younger than the other wives and more agile in case there is an emergency,” he said.
Zuma, who has around 20 children, has married six times but currently has four wives on the state’s budget.
If he does take a fifth concurrent wife, he would be following through on his threat to the most recent Mrs Zuma, Gloria Bongi Ngema.
“Don’t close the door that you’ve found open,” he told her at their wedding in April 2012. “Those who came before you didn’t close the door on you and no one closed the door on them. So I expect you to do the same.”
Strings of mistresses
Zuma’s preference for polygamy is well documented, but it would appear he is the last of a dying breed of non-monarchial African leaders who officially have more than one wife.
The challenge is that many African leaders have an official wife and strings of mistresses or consorts in the background, including quite a few big names.
Zuma’s upgraded wife count would put him above, or at par with Chad’s Idriss Deby Itno, who has at least four official wives—but over 10 depending on who you listen to, with the number seen as fluctuating due to divorces.
Sudan’s Omar al Bashir has two wives, Fatima Khlaid and second wife Widad Babiker Omer, whose first military hero husband died in an helicopter crash. He has no known children of his own.
Niger’s president Mahamadou Ossoufou also has two wives, Aissata Issiufu and Dr Malika Issoufou Mahamadout.
The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh in 2010 announced his marriage to a second wife but several reports suggest they divorced a year later after his first spouse put her foot down.
Given the likes of Bashir, Deby, Ossoufou and Jammeh are all practicing Muslims, then Zuma stands almost alone in Christian Africa.
Why would this be so when many turn a blind eye to polygamous leaders in Africa? Feminists—and church types— would argue that it is a sign of progress in advancing their cause for a show of example from the top, especially in a region where only nine countries explicitly legislate against polygamy.
Music to the ears
Few women in South Africa for example approve of polygamy, with 83% opposed, according to one 2010 poll.
It would be also music to the ears of those who nostalgically long for the days when matrilineal practices abounded, practised in powerful communities from the Ashanti and Serer communities of West Africa to the more dispersed Tuaregs.
But if feminists were to claim a victory of any colour, they should perhaps also consider that this is also an indicator of changing societal attitudes, not all for the better.
Polygamy is increasingly being driven underground or at least less fuss being kicked up about it as long as not done openly, but it remains alive and well, sustained by a network of mistresses and consorts.
A clutch of Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) by the American foreign aid arm USAID shows this is likely the case.
In all the African countries surveyed, more men claimed they had one wife than women who said they had no co-wives, essentially suggesting one side is lying through its teeth, and the other is aware of it.
Even in countries such as Burkina Faso and Guinea, where many men are open about being polygamous, the gulf between the two sides still doesn’t add up.
What is the danger in this? Keeping additional wives off the radar denies them of any legal protection they would have enjoyed if they were acknowledged. In this instance we might applaud Zuma for being upfront about his preference for marital plurality, with his wives supported—grudgingly—by the taxpayer.
There are also social implications—taking liaisons “offline” does little for the credibility of public health messages which the poor First Lady often has front.
In keeping with this we should then lampoon the state of presidential bedroom affairs around many of the continent’s state houses. Leaders are charged with among other things improving the lot of women in their countries—keeping some of them hidden does little for the continent’s women generally.
The two are not mutually exclusive: South Africa is still one of the more women-friendly countries in Africa, according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap.
But as the data show, despite major advances, a lot of ground remains to be covered in protecting women. African women could in the interim perhaps look to move to the Great Lakes region: the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi are among the most “honestly monogamous” countries.
At least there would be fewer surprises waiting for them when Number One decides to call it a day on earth.