Modern Party, Polygamist Tradition Clash in S. Africa

Reports that ANC President Jacob Zuma is to marry his fourth wife today unsettled many South Africans.
Reports that ANC President Jacob Zuma is to marry his fourth wife today unsettled many South Africans. (By Jerome Delay -- Associated Press)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 5, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, Jan. 4 -- Within the Zulu culture of Jacob Zuma, the newly elected president of the African National Congress, few moments in a man's life are more celebrated than taking a wife -- even if he already has others.

But news of Zuma's plans to marry a longtime girlfriend this weekend -- marking, by most counts, his sixth wedding -- sent waves of unease Friday through this polyglot nation where progressive notions of women's rights clash with deeply held convictions about respecting South Africa's varied cultural traditions.

The development appeared particularly awkward for the ANC, which over nearly a century has cast itself as a force not just of liberation but also of social modernization. South Africa's dominant political party has traditionally been led by mostly erudite, professional men who, with few exceptions, did not have several wives at the same time.

Set against that tradition, Zuma is a new kind of party leader, especially following Thabo Mbeki, a cerebral, pipe-smoking economist who remains president of the nation. Zuma, 65, is a former guerrilla with no formal education and a personal theme song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," that evokes the party's history of armed struggle rather than its more recent emphasis on the unglamorous work of reconciliation.

As a polygamist with a reported 16 children -- as well as a former rape defendant acquitted in 2006 -- Zuma has alienated many South African women, and his personal life threatens to tarnish the party's image as a champion of gender equality. The wedding, scheduled for Saturday, would bring the number of his current wives to four, news reports say.

Zuma's life story "upsets that neat little construct we talk about -- to be black, middle-class, liberated South Africans," said Business Day political editor Karima Brown.

Although polygamy is more common among Zulus than in most other ethnic groups, it was widely practiced throughout sub-Saharan Africa until recent decades. Muslims, who are a small but visible minority in South Africa, also sometimes take more than one wife.

Within urban South Africa, such traditions are visibly fading because of the shifting expectations of younger couples and the economic strain of supporting large families. Women increasingly are demanding more rights as well.

South Africa's post-apartheid constitution enshrined equal rights for women. The ANC adopted a new bylaw at its national convention last month requiring equal representation of men and women in its powerful National Executive Committee.

It was a triumph for the party's influential Women's League, long a potent force in South Africa for gender rights. But at the same convention, the league backed Zuma, who has several wives, over Mbeki, who has one.

Party officials declined Friday to comment on, or even to confirm, widely reported news of Zuma's impending marriage to Nompumelelo Ntuli, with whom he has two children. Nor did they update his official biography posted on the party's Web site; unlike the life stories of other party luminaries such as Nelson Mandela and Mbeki, Zuma's gives no information on his family.

The personal lives of these other leaders have not been without complications. Mbeki, as a teen, fathered a child out of wedlock. Mandela has had three wives, including the popular but controversial Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whom he divorced in 1996 after her kidnapping conviction related to the beating death of a 14-year-old boy and what Mandela's attorney told a court was her "brazen infidelity."

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