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Zuma's love child scandalizes South Africa

With three wives and a fiancee, South Africa's president apologizes for illegitimate child.

South African President Jacob Zuma, center, dances during his traditional Zulu wedding to Tobeka Madiba, his third concurrent wife, at the village of Nkandla in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Jan. 4, 2010. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Jacob Zuma already has three wives, and is engaged to take a fourth. But though South African society accepted the president's traditional Zulu polygamy, infidelity is a different matter.

Recent revelations that the South African leader fathered an illegitimate “love child," bringing the total number of his children to an estimated 20, has become the biggest scandal for the openly polygamous Zuma since he became president less than a year ago.

All eyes will be on Zuma when he gives his State of the Nation address on Thursday. What should be a momentous occasion, focused on this country’s brave history and tough tasks in the year ahead, has already been overshadowed by the president’s sex life.

Zuma broke with tradition by moving his speech up a day to Feb. 11 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. To attract the maximum possible audience, he changed the time from morning to evening so that workers and schoolchildren would be able to watch.

But now it seems that the nation will be watching to see how Zuma deals with the fallout from his sex life, rather than proposals he may have to bolster South Africa's economy or other political initiatives.

Bowing to public pressure ahead of his speech, Zuma apologized to the nation, his party and his family over the weekend, reversing an initial response of attacking the media for reporting on his personal life. “I deeply regret the pain that I have caused,” said Zuma in a statement.

In an earlier statement, he confirmed that he was the father of a 4-month-old girl with Sonono Khoza, the daughter of soccer boss Irvin Khoza, who is a friend of the president. Zuma said he had “done the necessary cultural imperatives” to make amends for having a child out of wedlock, including the traditional payment of damages, known as "inhlawulo," to the Khoza family.

Zuma, 67, has long defended his polygamy and drawn broad support in South Africa for his proud adherence to Zulu traditions, most recently on display last month at a traditional marriage ceremony to his third wife.

But by fathering a child in an extramarital affair — which is against traditional custom — he seems to have gone too far for many South Africans, provoking a national outcry over his behavior.

“Shame of the nation,” said a front-page editorial in the Sowetan newspaper.

“We believe President Zuma needs counseling and sex addiction therapy, as was recommended for Tiger Woods who has a similar problem of sleeping around,” said Kenneth Meshoe, the leader of African Christian Democratic Party.

Zuma canceled a door-to-door tour in a Cape Town township on Monday, which would have been his first public appearance since the love-child scandal, reportedly to avoid a planned protest by gender rights activists.