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COLUMN: MARY REVESAI

Zuma : polygamous president-in-waiting

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By Mary Revesai

IN 2002, former Liberian President Charles Taylor sparked an outcry from women in his country when he declared that one of the duties of the First Lady, his then wife, Jewel Howard, was to look for “co-wives” to bring to their marriage.

Taylor argued that as a traditional leader, he was entitled to have up to four wives. He therefore dismissed public questions about the extra-marital affairs he was supposed to be having, saying only his wife should be concerned.

The debate on whether a national leader sets a good example for the survival and protection of the family unit by having mistresses or being polygamous is bound to be revived, following the ascendancy of Jacob Zuma to the leadership of the ruling ANC in South Africa. He is in line to succeed Thabo Mbeki as national president when his current term ends next year.

Zuma, who caused a hue and cry among women’s organisations during his rape trial by claiming that it was a crime for a Zulu man to leave a sexually aroused woman un-fulfilled, is reported to have married Nompumelelo Ntuli in a traditional Zulu ceremony.

MaNtuli, as Zuma’s latest spouse is known, already has two children out of wedlock with the ANC president. She is the fourth woman to become Zuma’s wife. In addition to his first wife, Sizakele, to whom he is still married, Zuma was once also married to South African Foreign Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. They divorced in 1998. Another of Zuma’s wives, Kate, committed suicide in 2000.

Zuma, who is reported to have more than 20 children from his various liaisons and marriages, is said to have been urged by his advisers to marry a “credible partner” to appear with him in public as First Lady if he becomes president. Zuma’s image took a serious knock during his trial on rape charges in 2006 when he made his infamous “shower” faux pas by admitting that after having sexual intercourse with the HIV positive complainant, he had taken a shower as a precaution against infection. He was slammed by women’s and AIDS groups which accused him of reversing the gains that had been made in promoting awareness about the deadly disease by sending out the wrong message.

Ironically, only about a week before his latest nuptials, Zuma’s first wife, Sizakele expressed her ambitions to be South Africa’s First Lady if and when her husband took over from Mbeki. “I would love to be the first lady should he be elected because I am his and nothing could change that,” she told reporters.

Zuma had previously praised Sizakele for standing by him through thick and thin since their marriage in 1959. The fact that she is now being passed over for the role of Zuma’s official consort is bound to raise questions about whether a woman’s worth as a wife should be based on looks and youthfulness or whether these are the values the leader of a country should promote.

Is Zuma telling South African men that once they become successful, they should shun their faithful and longstanding first wives and be seen in public with newer and younger models?

Questions are also bound to be asked whether a man with multiple wives has enough time to give them equal attention and still perform his duties as head of state satisfactorily. With Lucy Kibaki of Kenya being notorious for the public spats she has got into on account of her husband’s polygamy, South Africans will also wonder whether a president with a turbulent home life can give his undivided attention to matters of state.

The more pressing question is, however, whether Zuma can support all his wives and children on a state salary. Zuma has defended his lifestyle by saying by being open about his wives, he is more honest than colleagues who secretly keep mistresses and girlfriends.

Zuma’s polygamous lifestyle has already been cited as the main reason why he was at the beck and call of his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, who is serving a 15-year jail term for corruption and fraud. The South African weekly, the Sunday Times has published in its latest issue a tabulation showing how Zuma and his family were paid more than R4 million over a 10-year period. When Shaik was convicted, the presiding judge, Hilary Squires, said the former deputy president had a generally corrupt relationship with his financial adviser.

The most prominent polygamous head of state in Africa must be Swaziland’s King Mswati III who chooses a young maiden as his latest bride every year during a ceremony known as the reed dance. At last count, Mswati, the only absolute monarch left in Africa, had more than 12 wives. With the advent of AIDS, debate rages on about whether such a lifestyle is fair to all involved.

Feminists who believe marriage should be based on love and should be monogamous, have charged that women in polygamous marriages are regarded as sex objects and appendages rather respected partners. In addition to Kibaki, former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo is said to have had more than one wife. Former Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko reportedly married twin sisters following the death of his first wife, Marie Antoinette.

Zuma has a point about his approach being more honourable and above board. In some countries, citizens snigger behind the backs of their leaders in connection with the extra-marital affairs they conduct while in office. But in the Africa of today, the need for there to be no secrets about a head of state’s private life and family is not just limited to public curiosity. This was demonstrated in Nigeria following the sudden death of dictator Sani Abacha in 1999. When it was discovered that Abacha had stolen billions from the nation which the government needed to recover, it became imperative to identify his family and offspring for purposes of tracing and recovering what the people of Nigeria had been robbed of.

Mary Revesai is a New Zimbabwe.com columnist and writes from Harare. Her column will appear here every Tuesday

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