If the family is the basic unit of society, and if South Africa President Jacob Zuma’s family is any kind of model, prospects of his country finding its way out of disease and chaos seem slight. President Zuma has just concluded a “traditional” (African customary) wedding with his third concurrent wife.

Thobeka Stacey Mabhija (Madiba), a Durban socialite, married Zuma in a civil ceremony a few years ago and has been living since then in the president’s homestead with second wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli. Ntuli has borne him two children and Madiba three.

The woman described as his “first wife”, Sizakele Khumalo, known as MaKhumalo, presumably also lives in the Zuma compound. She has no children and is extremely shy. As eldest wife (she is in her sixties) she should be in charge, but an expert says that if younger wives are better educated they can decide among themselves who will run the show.

But wait, there’s more. According to this commentator there have been two other wives and still there are two would-be brides waiting in the wings. Zuma is said to have had about 18 children with various women.

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

One wonders how mutual these sentiments are within the clan he is building. In any case, what sort of father can he be to his children? Furthermore, isn’t Zuma’s polygamy giving quite the wrong example to a country that has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the world? The government’s own AIDS programme encourages people to sleep with only one partner, and he is presumably sleeping with at least three.

Opposition politicians say the president’s polygamy also creates a financial burden for the country. Christian Democratic Party leader Rev Theunis Botha described the latest wedding as “a giant step back into the dark ages” and said such ancestral practices were keeping Africa in superstition and poverty. He implied that the churches were not taking a stand against “ancestral worship” and all that goes with it.

Wonder what Nelson Mandela thinks about it all… Uh-oh. He has been married three times — but at least not concurrently, and his first wife is dead. Perhaps Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is monogamous, as one would expect, might have something to say. Without a proper understanding of family life it is difficult to see how South Africa can make progress.

Photo: President Jacob Zuma,seen with his three wives Sizakele Khumalo, right, Nompumelo Ntuli, left, and Thobeka Madiba.
Photograph by: MIKE HUTCHINGS
Credit: AP

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet