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Zuma's 3 wives provoke hot debate

South Africa asks if polygamous president is appropriate for country fighting AIDS.

South African President Jacob Zuma dances during his traditional wedding to Tobeka Madiba at the village of Nkandla in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Jan. 4, 2010. The 68-year-old president, in Zulu tribal dress, took Madiba, 37, as his third concurrent wife, according to clan custom. Multiple marriages are allowed in South Africa but the practice has drawn criticism from HIV/AIDS activists in a country with one of the highest infection rates in the world. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For his wedding to wife number three, President Jacob Zuma, 67, put on his leopard skins, a pair of fresh white sneakers, and with his bare torso jiggling, performed a traditional solo dance for his new woman. Soon he may have to do it all over again — he has another fiancee waiting in the wings.

Zuma’s latest wedding has fanned the flames of debate over his polygamy, a contentious topic that became an issue in South Africa during the election last year and will likely persist throughout his term in office.

A survey following his wedding last week to Tobeka Madiba (his fifth marriage in total) found that most South Africans are opposed to polygamy. Of the 2,000 people polled by TNS Research Surveys, 74 percent said that polygamy was a problem, including 68 percent of black South Africans surveyed and 86 percent of whites.

Zuma, who is believed to be the father of 19 children by at least six women, was recently criticized in the media for plans to expand the family compound at Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal province — where his most recent wedding was held — at a cost of $8.8 million to South African taxpayers.

There have also been questions raised about the cost to taxpayers for perks for his wives and children, including medial aid, security and free flights.

“To maintain such a huge family, Zuma needs far above his current income. Are those on pilgrimage to Nkandla paying his lobola (bride price)?” wondered Babusisiwe Vilakazi in a letter to the Mail & Guardian.

While South Africans are only allowed to have one civil union, multiple customary marriages are permitted.

Zuma’s traditional African lifestyle has proved popular with a large segment of the population, and his defenders argue that he is being open and proud of his many relationships instead of hiding mistresses and illegitimate children.

“This practice (polygamy) is most significant to the Zulu nation and is very well respected,” said one online commenter. “Those who have acquiesced to modern Western cultures and religions should learn to keep their inherited beliefs to themselves and refrain from criticizing African traditional and cultural practices which they seem to think are primordially ancient and have no place in the modern world.”

However, some critics have argued that Zuma’s polygamy is sending the wrong message to a country with an AIDS epidemic and where billboard campaigns urge men to only have one steady partner to limit their risk.