JOHANNESBURG — With a wide smile, easy charm and flexible political views, Jacob Zuma is generally expected to be South Africa's next president. He is, after all, the leader of the ruling party, the African National Congress, and is virtually assured victory in this year's upcoming elections.
What is not so sure is who will be the next first lady. Or, rather, how many first ladies the country will have.
That is because Zuma is slated to be South Africa's first polygamous president — "Big Love" South African style.
Zuma's complicated family life — he currently has two wives but is reportedly in the process of marrying a third and has as many as 18 children — has already put him in the headlines and caused him legal troubles. Now it could become a political liability.
Zuma has been quick to embrace the polygamous culture of his Zulu ethnic group, but he does not have the financial means to provide for his very large family in South Africa’s modern urban society, said Shadrack Gutto, director of the Center for African Renaissance Studies at the University of South Africa.
“Zuma is someone who doesn’t have the material trappings of tradition but wants to practice the tradition and therefore is unhappily caught between them,” Gutto said.
Zuma’s balancing act between tradition and modernity is a common occurrence in South Africa. Indigenous languages coexist with English and Afrikaans. The country’s justice system includes traditional courts whose main goal is to restore relationships between plaintiffs. Doctors here compete with traditional healers, and the former health minister found herself in a tough spot when she promoted the use of lemon, beets and garlic in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Zuma found himself very publicly straddling that divide when he was on trial three years ago for allegedly raping a family friend who was 30 years his junior and HIV-positive. He testified that the young woman had worn a knee-length skirt, which in Zulu custom is an open provocation, and he was compelled to satisfy her. He knew that she was HIV-positive but he did not use a condom. Instead, he told the court, he took a shower afterwards to protect himself from the virus.
Zuma was acquitted of the rape charge, but some women's groups have bitterly criticized him for an "unprogressive" attitude towards women.
When it comes to marriage, South Africa is quite inclusive. It is the only African country to recognize same-sex marriage and it also allows for polygamy and customary marriages, which under the previous racially discriminatory apartheid system were for blacks using their rural traditions and in which women did not have full legal rights.
Customary marriages were granted full recognition in 2000, giving equal status to a husband and his multiple wives. Under the law, the existing wives must give their consent before a subsequent wife joins the family. Nomboniso Gasa, who leads South Africa’s Commission on Gender Equality, said she respects polygamous marriages but that the key issue is that all parties involved must be able to keep their integrity and give their true consent.
“Zuma can have 20 wives if he wants to and if they agree,” she said.
Zuma rarely discusses his private life in public, but he is an unabashed polygamist, according to Jeremy Gordin’s recent book "Zuma: A Biography." Gordin writes that Zuma said: “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.”
Determining exactly how many wives and children Zuma has is tricky. He has apparently married four times and divorced once. One of his wives committed suicide in 2000, leaving behind a note alluding to her “most painful 24-year marriage” that was published in a South African newspaper. Zuma has more fiancees, for whom he has paid lobola, a traditional bride price, and with whom he has fathered children. Even Gordin isn’t sure about the current count, and when asked the question, Brian Sokutu, spokesman for Zuma’s party, said: “That’s going to be a difficult one in terms of children and wives.” A spokeswoman for Zuma didn’t return requests for information.
What is certain is that official arrangements once Zuma is in office promise to be complex. Sunette Snyman, an attorney with extensive knowledge of marriage law, said she expects Zuma’s wives to receive the same protection but only a fraction of Zuma’s pension.
Said presidential spokesman Thabo Masebe: “At the moment, the [current] president has one wife so I don’t know what would happen if the president has more than one wife.”
No one knows what protocol to follow if Zuma, as president, hosts a state dinner for a visiting head of state. Who will sit next to Zuma's wife. And who will sit next to the other ones?
Gutto said Zuma’s extended family could turn into a liability as taxpayers may find it increasingly hard to foot the bill for his wives’ travels and his children’s education.
“The public will begin to complain about this kind of expenditures in an economy where unemployment is so high, where basic needs are very difficult to meet for a large number of the population,” he said.
On the legal front, the cost of Zuma’s offspring has already proved damaging. His financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of fraud and corruption for payments made on behalf of and to Zuma — payments that were used partly to support Zuma’s many children, according to Gordin and Gutto. Corruption charges against Zuma himself are pending and he could appear in court as a sitting president.
“We have seen his relation with Schabir Shaik and so on has brought him already a lot of challenges — legal challenges — that may actually multiply many times if he continues with acquiring or getting into relations with more women and taking them as wives,” Gutto concluded.
Legal and financial difficulties aside, many in South Africa are relishing the complicated drama that will unfold from the many wives of Jacob Zuma.