Which Mrs. Zuma Will Be South Africa's First Lady?

South African President-elect Jacob Zuma dances with Nompumelelo Ntuli at their Zulu wedding last year.
South African President-elect Jacob Zuma dances with Nompumelelo Ntuli at their Zulu wedding last year. (Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 9, 2009

JOHANNESBURG, May 8 -- To the rarefied ranks of first ladies such as Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, South Africa will add Sizakele Khumalo.

Or will it be Nompumelelo Ntuli?

Or Thobeka Mabhija?

Though South Africa's recent general election featured all the mudslinging of a fierce political battle, it was long expected to result in the victory of ruling party leader Jacob Zuma, who is to be inaugurated as president Saturday. The real mystery -- one that has intrigued South Africans for months -- is which of Zuma's wives will be the nation's new first lady.

Zuma, a 67-year-old Zulu traditionalist, is about to become South Africa's first polygamist president. Confronted with the first lady question, spokesmen for his party, the African National Congress, have typically declined to respond or noted that the constitution does not touch on the issue, thus allowing Zuma to choose or alternate. The party, in fact, had stayed mum on just how many wives and children Zuma has -- figures that even his biographer could not nail down.

New clues emerged this week, however. At the bottom of an ANC statement that extolled Zuma's liberation-movement credentials and ballroom-dancing skills, the party casually noted that he is a father of 19 and a husband to three: Khumalo, Ntuli and Mabhija.

On Thursday, local news media reported that all three women were on Zuma's guest list for the inauguration, which is expected to draw 5,000 dignitaries.

But speculation remains rife about what the Times newspaper called the "protocol nightmare" of whether the state will be obligated to cover medical care, jet transportation and security for the entire Zuma brood. And South Africans are still in the dark about who will be Zuma's date to galas and have dibs on the spousal office in the east wing of the president's hilltop residence in Pretoria, the administrative capital.

"As a family they are supportive of each other," said Lindiwe Zulu, an ANC spokeswoman, noting that one of Zuma's daughters has often accompanied him to official events. "That family has got their own unique way of dealing with those issues. If they didn't, I'm sure we would have heard about it by now."

While providing fodder for headlines and comics, fascination with Zuma's polygamy is rooted in deeper dilemmas in democratic South Africa, whose ultra-progressive, Western-influenced constitution enshrines equal rights for women but also protects tribal traditions that were suppressed by the white apartheid government. Among them is the mostly rural practice of polygamy, which was legalized in 1998, though only for men belonging to tribes in which it is a custom.

"South Africa is a very modern, secular country with a great constitution, but it's also an African country. To some extent, Jacob Zuma sort of brings it full circle," said Penelope Andrews, a law professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana who has written widely on polygamy in South Africa, her native country. "And a lot of people are obviously fine with it."

But not everyone. As elections approached, the leader of the African Christian Democratic Party attacked polygamy as "abuse of women." In an open letter to Zuma in the Mail & Guardian newspaper Friday, gender rights activist Colleen Lowe Morna wrote of Zuma's wives: "I doubt you would countenance any one of them having several husbands." One recent opinion poll found that 74 percent of respondents opposed polygamy.

But that survey was conducted in urban areas, and Zuma's backers say that is part of the problem. Critics, they maintain, are elites whose opinions are out of touch with many of their compatriots, particularly those who live in rural areas like the one where Zuma, who grew up herding cows, keeps a homestead. The ANC swept the elections with almost 66 percent of the vote, a resounding victory attributed in large part to Zuma's appeal.

"Jacob Zuma's pride in his culture is what has played such a large part in his hyper-popularity in this country," one reader wrote in a letter to the Star newspaper on Friday, saying Zuma was a victim of "pandering to overseas European values."

Zuma draws vigorous support from the ANC Women's League, which approves of polygamy as long as wives enter into it willingly and the husband takes good care of all spouses and children, said Zulu, the ANC spokeswoman. Though Zulu said she "may not agree with it," she said she is certain the Zuma marriages meet those standards.

"There are plenty of politicians who have mistresses and children who they hide so as to pretend they're monogamous," Zuma once told a television interviewer. "I prefer to be open. I love my wives, and I'm proud of my children."

By most counts, Zuma has been married five times. One marriage, to Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ended in divorce in 1998. Another wife, Kate Mantsho Zuma, committed suicide in 2000.

Zuma has been married since 1973 to his first wife, Khumalo, who lives at Zuma's country home and rarely appears in public. He wed Ntuli, who is in her mid-30s and often attends high-profile soirees, at a traditional Zulu ceremony last year. Early this year, news broke that he had paid lobola -- a sort of bride price, often given in the form of cattle or cash -- to the family of Mabhija, a socialite in her mid-30s. But there was no confirmation of their marriage until this week's ANC statement. His children range in age from infancy to older than 30.

Zuma's first lady situation is not unique, though his counterparts on the world stage tend to be kings, not presidents. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is reported to have about four wives. King Mswati III of Swaziland is expected at the Zuma inauguration -- most likely with one of his 13 or so wives on his arm.

First ladies in democratic South Africa have not been major figures. Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president and a bachelor for most of his presidency, was often accompanied to events by his daughter. Thabo Mbeki's wife was well recognized but hardly the subject of scrutiny or adoration.

The wife of Kgalema Motlanthe, South Africa's interim president since September, was such an unknown that a newspaper launched an investigation in January to find out who she is. That backfired after the newspaper reported that it had discovered a young and pregnant mistress of Motlanthe along the way, then retracted that after the woman recanted her story.

Even so, pundits and observers do not doubt that each Zuma wife would like the title. One Zuma insider has been quoted as saying Khumalo, as the oldest, is the most likely choice. Other reports predict the younger and more social Mrs. Zumas will vie for the job.

"You know the TV show 'Desperate Housewives'? It's going to be Desperate First Wives," said Andrews, the law professor. "I imagine there's going to be a little bit of controversy for the first year or two."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company