Posted on February 6, 2009

The South African President’s Harem

R.W. Johnson, National Post (Toronto), February 6, 2009

The ongoing row in the South African press over President Kgalema Motlanthe’s complicated love life has brought out into the open a subject that much of the country’s ruling black elite would rather keep hidden. Motlanthe, 59, is estranged from his wife, has a steady 45-year-old mistress and a 24-year-old, now heavily pregnant, lover. The African National Congress (ANC) spokesman, Carl Niehaus, insists that media attention is an invasion of privacy, but South African journalists have proven underwhelmed by this response.

Only a few weeks ago, Niehaus issued a statement denouncing as “lies” reports that the ANC leader (and, doubtless, South Africa’s future president), Jacob Zuma, was about to marry a fifth wife. When the reports were quickly proved true, Niehaus hurriedly insisted that Zuma’s behaviour, though “in line with African custom and tradition,” was a private matter. Still, South African journalists want to know: Who exactly is our First Lady? In particular, which of Zuma’s five wives (he is currently courting a sixth) will be the First Lady at his presidential inauguration in April?

“What you’re really looking at here is a collision of cultures which has been going on ever since the first missionaries landed at the Cape,” says sociologist Laurence Schlemmer. “To an extraordinary extent, the missionaries managed to associate the Christian ideal of monogamy with high social status and modernity.”

Indeed, Zuma is unusual in his frank acknowledgement of his own polygamy. In the eyes of many educated Africans, this is a shameful sign of his cultural backwardness–that, as former president Thabo Mbeki put it, Zuma is still a traditional Zulu peasant at heart. All educated Africans publicly deplore the ever-expanding harems maintained by the Swazi and Zulu kings. But among less-educated Africans–Zuma’s natural followers–polygamy is far more easily accepted.

Stanley Mogoba, former president of the Pan Africanist Congress, has said that “virtually none of the African National Congress leadership have normal and stable family lives. There are multiple but hidden wives and mistresses, ex-wives, unacknowledged and hidden children, every imaginable sort of arrangement. Sometimes, they seem almost to turn themselves inside out trying to be or appear what they are really not.”

Thus, officially, Nelson Mandela has been serially monogamous with three consecutive wives. But it is no secret that, at least when he was young, he was a philanderer on a large scale, and there are persistent rumours of illegitimate children. Mbeki was also known to be a ladies man on an almost industrial scale. The accusation could hardly be denied, but drawing attention to it was impermissible, especially since Mbeki was haunted by notions that the AIDS epidemic had confirmed stereotypes of lustful and sexually irresponsible African male behaviour. Similarly, neither Motlanthe nor Zuma welcomes questions about, or even attention being paid to, their marital lives.

This anomalous situation is compounded by the fact that although polygamy is legal in South Africa and homophobia common, the South African constitution is one of the world’s most progressive in its acknowledgement and championing of gay rights and gender equality. Feminists have won legal battles over inheriting property–even though in African customary law a widow and all her chattels belong to her late husband’s family–and have angrily denounced polygamy as a form of female subordination.

But even such feminist advances have their own contradictions: When Joe Modise, the notoriously corrupt former defence minister, died, his wife asserted her right to inherit his considerable wealth. The trouble was that so did his regular mistress. A battle royal ensued.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the black elite are trying to keep the subject of polygamy out of the press. It brings to light too much embarrassment and anxiety about what constitutes “respectable” behaviour.

Still, the question remains: Who is South Africa’s First Lady?