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This we cannot blame on culture

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

As much as many might prefer to bypass the latest Zuma scandal, it cannot be done, simply because it once again shows in the starkest of ways, that South Africa’s uncomfortable marriage of culture, tradition and constitutionality has to be sorted out.

We’re already very familiar with President Jacob Zuma’s philandering lifestyle. He’s only just emerged from the brouhaha that erupted when it was discovered he had fathered a child out of wedlock with Irvin Khoza’s daughter. But last week the other side of the story emerged, a backlash of sorts, when the Zulu newspaper iLanga published an excerpt from a letter, claiming that not only did Zuma’s second wife Nompumelelo Ntuli sleep with her bodyguard, but that the child she is expecting is the result of that act. In short, our “second first lady” is apparently pregnant with someone else’s child.

Then on Friday the Mail & Guardian ran an article claiming that the same wife has a teenage son by actor Joe Mafela, and that the whole matter had been hidden from Zuma to protect him. With all this dirty laundry emerging in the most sordid of way literally a week before the opening of the World Cup, with the eyes of the world upon us cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be good. As if the seating politics weren’t going to be difficult enough as things stood, Fifa evidently overlooked the possibility that a dignitary, and the host nation’s leader no less, might want to bring several spouses to the games.

Zuma’s polygamous marriage has been defended on several occasions. Thanks to the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act a man, living in South Africa, is allowed to have several wives at once. The term “polygamy” is misleading, because it implies that both polygyny (one man, several wives) and polyandry (one woman, several husbands) are permitted, when in fact the Act only permits polygyny. A woman is forbidden to have several husbands. On the face of it then, this particular clause in the RCMA is unconstitutional.

It is also important to remember exactly what “culture” permits and does not. According to Zulu cultural expert Ndela Ntshangase, who was quoted by TimesLive, “polygamy allows all children to be born into a family, to have access to both parents, unlike an illegitimate child. If a child is born out of wedlock…the child is in a vulnerable position, she is standing on a slippery slope. Hence the culture forbids all those things”. Quite clearly then, it may be okay for a man to have several wives, but children born out of wedlock are simply not on.

It will be very interesting to note how the matter of MaNtuli’s alleged infidelity is handled, considering her husband’s record in that area.

Some have argued that Zuma’s personal life is distracting him from his presidential duties, and I’m inclined to agree with them. But it’s more than that. The problem with Jacob Zuma is Jacob Zuma.  We can’t blame his lifestyle on culture. This isn’t a manifestation of Mbeki’s “rampant sexual beasts, unable to control our urges, unable to keep our legs crossed, unable to keep it in our pants”. To say that Zuma’s behaviour is somehow okay, because of his culture, is an insult to every man who, living under the same cultural paradigms as Zuma, chooses to remain faithful in his marriage.

I also feel that there is a very subtle put-down in the culture apologist’s stance, as if they are arguing that men such as Zuma should not be held to a standard equal to other men in the country because their lascivious behaviour is only a part of their curious African ways.

In these circumstances, constitutional norms must be the measure against which all practices, customary or otherwise, are measured. Culture is simply no longer an excuse.

South Africa cannot stomach much more of Zuma’s lifestyle, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the ANC started contemplating the available options. It’s not as they haven’t done it before.


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