Opinionista Chris Gibbons 16 April 2012

The Many Wives of JZ

The president is going to get married again and, in a moment of lapsed ethnocentricity, informed by some solid journalistic fact-finding, I discovered a truth about myself.

Was it a slow news day, I wondered, or did I detect deep condemnation in the weekend headlines announcing that President Jacob Zuma is to wed bride No 4? “JZ Weds Again – The President Makes It Marriage Number Six,” stated City Press flatly, leaving it to the Sunday Times to lead its front page with “Zuma to marry – again!”

Reading both for a second or third time confirmed my original view. Clearly, City Press was showing disapproval, and the Sunday Times, never one to miss a trick, hammered home its anti-polygamy editorial position with that final “again!” Such a firm use of the exclamation mark, I thought, nodding my approval towards some anonymous subeditor.

But reading the same headlines a fourth and even a fifth time, it occurred to me that it might be possible to place a different interpretation on them. Possible, but unlikely. “Zuma to marry – again!” You might approach it in the same way as “Pienaar scores hat-trick for Bafana – again!” Both Zuma and Pienaar have just achieved something important and to be welcomed. City Press’s version,“The President Makes It Marriage Number Six”, could come out of the same style-book as “Ferguson And United Make It Title Number Six.”

Now I was filled with self-doubt. Could my many long years in journalism be letting me down? Was my ability to pick up attacking undertones in a headline fading? Had I missed the point completely here – could these esteemed organs of our free press be lauding the good president, in fact?

Now I would have to do something quite unusual, something that I have not had to do since my early days as a junior reporter at the SABC back in the late 1970s. Yes, I would actually have to read the article. This way I would certainly find out whether or not either newspaper was pro or anti the many Mrs Zumas.

But no, to my dismay, not even the closest scrutiny could give me any clues. I thought I might have found one early in the Sunday Times piece, which told me in paragraph four that Zuma “…reputedly has about 20 children in total.” Right, I thought, there it is. Clear, unequivocal condemnation – why else would they put such a telling fact so high in the piece? This is the evidence – 20 children! – that our president is a man following a primitive belief system, bringing far too many people into the world, in a grossly irresponsible manner.

But then I remembered my own two children – two grown-up sons, in fact. I quite like them. In fact, I like them a very great deal and wouldn’t mind having more of them around the place. They might come and visit more often. Twenty might be pushing it, but six? Ten? Yes, I could certainly get my head around that. So, looked at through that lens, the president might be considered a very lucky man.

Gripped now by a severe case of cultural confusion, I did what nearly all veteran journalists do in such circumstances: I turned to the Internet. Immediately I learnt that what President Zuma and his consorts practice is more properly called polygyny. That’s when a man has many wives. And when a woman has many husbands, it’s polyandry. For a moment, I toyed with the idea of sending the president a note to inform him of this important fact. After all, heads of state ought to know these things.

Reading on, however, in the Wikipedia article on polygamy, I discovered more fascinating information. I’ll bet you didn’t know, for instance, that “According to the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, of 1,231 societies noted, 186 were monogamous, 453 had occasional polygyny, 588 had more frequent polygyny, and 4 had polyandry.” In other words, well over 80% of the societies counted had some or other form of men being allowed multiple marriage partners. Which means that we monogamous types are very much in the minority. I’m not certain I enjoy being a minority!

I’ll also bet that you didn’t know that nearly half of all marriages in Senegal are polygynous. Wikipedia also notes that “Many African societies saw children as a form of wealth, thus the more children a family had, the more powerful it was. Thus polygamy was part of empire building.” This tempted me for a moment to speculate about whether or not the president’s many marriages somehow had something to do with Mangaung, but I felt that might be a little far-fetched.

One thing is abundantly clear. The President’s political opponents who dismiss him as a simple man are wrong. The complexity involved in managing just one wife and two children is enormous, so imagine the intellect and resources required to manage four wives and 20 children. It’s impressive, to say the least.

Clearly, armed with all this new information, I would have to put my Judaeo-Christian prejudices behind me and take a fresh look at the headlines. I reached for my now-well-thumbed Sunday Times: “Zuma to marry – again!” Well, there’s no doubt, is there? This is a mass-market publication and if it’s talking to the 1,041 societies of our planet’s 1,231 – the vast majority of which have polygyny – then it’s giving JZ a big thumbs up! That’s the point of the exclamation mark after the word “again”. Now I’m certain and once again I tip my hat to a clever subeditor. I can’t believe I didn’t spot it first time round, but in fairness I had not before come across that excellent publication, Ethnographic Atlas Codebook.

So what’s the stark truth, Mr President? Having dumped my background and upbringing, processed a mountain of new information and considered all those children? The truth is I’m just jealous! DM


Support DAILY MAVERICK & get FREE UBER vouchers every month

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money, though not nearly as much as its absence can cost global community. No country can live and prosper without truth - that's why it matters.

Every Daily Maverick article and every Scorpio exposé is proof of our dedication to this unshakeable mission. Investing in our news media is by far the most effective investment into South Africa's future.

You can support Independent and Investigative journalism by joining Maverick Insider. If you contribute R150 or more per month you will receive R100 back in UBER vouchers. EVERY MONTH until October 2019.

So, if you'd like to help and do something meaningful for yourself and your country, then sign up to become a Maverick Insider. Together we can Defend Truth.

Days of Zondo

Bosasa Inc: More songs about bribes, cooked tenders and major cover-ups

By Jessica Bezuidenhout

Eton College once provided free education to poor boys. Now it quite literally does the opposite.