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.
The opposition Democratic Alliance party welcomed Zuma’s apology, but said “he must now focus on repairing the damage he has done to the fight against HIV/AIDS.” South Africa has the highest number of HIV infections in the world, and a government campaign promotes the message of ABC — Abstain, Be faithful, and Condomize.
“It is worth recalling that Jacob Zuma has apologized in exactly these terms before,” DA leader Helen Zille noted, referring to Zuma’s apology after his 2006 rape trial, during which he said he took a shower after having sex with a friend’s daughter who was HIV-positive. After the trial, Zuma said: “I wish to state categorically and place on record that I erred in having unprotected sex.”
Even members of his African National Congress party are getting fed up with Zuma’s love life, with unnamed senior officials questioning his bid for a second term as head of state.
The Star, Johannesburg's largest daily newspaper, reported that ANC elders had warned him three years ago about embarrassing the party with his sexual indiscretions. The ANC Youth League, a bastion of support, refrained from directly criticizing Zuma but reiterated its safe sex message of “one boyfriend, one girlfriend.”
The Congress of the People, a party created in 2008 by former ANC members, called for Zuma to resign.
Observers are wondering how Zuma will handle his State of the Nation address, with the “love-child” scandal drawing attention from his planned discussion of job creation, health care and education. In his speech he is also expected to “celebrate national unity and reconciliation,” according to the office of the presidency.
In addition to the love-child scandal, Zuma is dealing with infighting between the ANC and political alliance members over issues such as the nationalization of the country’s mines.
After the scandal broke, Zuma took an unscheduled two days off to rest, citing a busy schedule. He had just returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos and the African Union summit meeting in Addis Ababa. But the rest period sparked off more of the Zuma jokes that have been making the rounds in South Africa.
“Zuma taking two days off his hectic schedule. Mothers, lock up your daughters!” wrote one South African on Twitter.