To poly or not to poly? – Pumla Gqola

2012-04-21 08:51

In the last week, I’ve been drawn into various debates about polygamy.

This happens occasionally, usually in relation to a powerful man in Southern Africa.

Although polygamy is one of a range of coupling options readily practised in South African society, it takes on very specific inflections when discussed in relation to President Jacob Zuma or a member of the royal family.

At such times, members of the public assert that marriage is not a private matter, but one that concerns us all, linked to a range of other key considerations such as women’s rights, freedom of association, cultural rights, HIV and the running of the state.

Against this backdrop the recent flurry of debate is both about Zuma and much larger than the first citizen.

Let me immediately address the “culturalist” argument in defence of polygamy. Anti-polygamy voices do not threaten cultural rights as enshrined in the Constitution.

Culturalist proponents of polygamy should recognise that claiming that a practice is “cultural” is never enough.

 The onus is on them to show why any cultural practice is worth retaining. They fail by pretending there is an anti-cultural conspiracy by most South Africans.


The justification for objections to Zuma’s next wedding makes even less sense. Most South Africans voted for Zuma knowing he was a polygamist. To say they were voting for a party and not the man is no excuse.

Those who theoretically supported the party, but objected to its list found other ways to show their feelings by not voting for the ANC at national level. Furthermore, as Mac Maharaj pointed out in a recent interview on Umhlobo Wenene FM, the strain on taxpayers will be minimal.

Now, the weakest argument around polygamy in the past week: the issue of patriarchal oppression and the spread of HIV/Aids laid squarely at polygamy’s door.

Many of us who identify as feminist are challenged to oppose polygamy because it oppresses women. Women do not want to share their husbands with other women, we are reminded.

Polygamy, by definition, works against the tools of HIV/Aids prevention since men could have sex with many women and return to infect their wives, some screamed.

Such arguments hold that polygamous marriages are by their very design patriarchal and more brutal and dangerous than monogamous marriages.

This is the most baffling of the arguments made by people who live in a world where polygamous marriages are a minority, but patriarchy is the norm and HIV/Aids infection rates are high.

To believe that polygamy is inherently oppressive, whereas monogamy is freeing, renders romantic choice as normal and desirable.

These people also need to turn a blind eye to the reality in our society: the widespread domestic abuse, child abuse and other forms of violence in homes characterised by monogamous marriage.

Heterosexual marriage is the core institution of patriarchy. This means marriage by design is oppressive to women, even though it is possible to build a marriage that is not patriarchal.

This is not a contradiction: the only non-oppressive marriages are those that are deliberately structured in this way. Doing away with polygamy will not alter the oppressive valuation of heterosexual coupling.

The scapegoating of polygamy allows us to look away from how messy the logic of romance is everywhere, even within exclusive monogamous relationships.

It is important to expose the lie that monogamy translates to exclusivity. Indeed the competition for a man in order to marry encourages multiple partnerships.

Monogamy and polygamy are mere options, with benefits and dangers.

There is no obligation to choose either one. It is dangerous to prescribe our own sexual orientations and preferences as the only valid ones.

» Gqola is the feminist author of What is Slavery to Me, associate professor of literary and gender studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, and at @feminist_rogue on Twitter

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