Uncomfortable bedfellows

2009-02-12 00:00

It’s time to stop beating about the bush are far as polygamy and suitability for leadership of a progressive democracy are concerned. I refer of course to the likelihood of African National Congress (ANC) leader Jacob Zuma and his four (or is it two or six?) wives becoming the first family of South Africa after the April 2009 elections.

Before the ink has even dried on this page, I can hear the cries that I am white, that I am a feminist and that I have a Western bias. I plead guilty to all three. But I also pride myself on believing in equality, knowing that two of the least comfortable bedfellows in our Constitution are polygamy and equal rights, and that criteria for leadership go well beyond legal or even constitutional technicalities.

Picture, for example, in any other modern democracy that you can think of, a leader who has a case of corruption hanging over his head and whose personal conduct in a rape case concerning an HIV-positive woman half his age, raised the eyebrows of even a highly conservative judge. This leader is now preparing to enter office with a slew of wives and children whom no one has an accurate count of, save that many of these additions took place simultaneously.

He might have slipped through the noose of the courts on the rape count. He might still do so on the corruption count and may even be on the safe side of a Constitution that fudges the issue of polygamy. But would he pass the test of leadership, bearing in mind that a leader should not only espouse but embody the highest ideals of any given country?

The doubts cast on Zuma’s credentials by the corruption case have been widely canvassed. Sadly, those relating to Zuma’s attitudes and conduct towards women have not. Our national media have reduced the debate on Zuma’s polygamous lifestyle to what this will cost taxpayers, whether presidential security will be able to cope and which one of the first ladies will be the official escort, not whether acquiring more wives, as if they were possessions, raises concerns as to how Zuma views our Constitutional provisions on gender equality.

It’s worth scrolling back to what the Constitution says on the thorny issue of gender equality versus customary law, which any women’s rights activist will tell you were the most painful of all the compromises made at the Congress for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) that finally ushered in a new era in 1994. The Constitution does not ban polygamy. But, in affirming gender equality as a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy, the Constitution states that should there be a contradiction between customary law and the Bill of Rights, the latter takes precedence.

By requiring that customary marriages be registered, the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act seeks to ensure that all women in polygamous marriages have equal rights to property. At least part of the calculation there was that financial considerations would lead to polygamous marriages dying a natural death. By and large, this practice is indeed dying out, with notable exceptions such as our soon-to-be president.

Would polygamy stand the test of a Constitutional Court challenge? It seems difficult to see how provisions for equal rights between women and men could possibly be squared with a system that allows men to have as many wives as they want, yet women to have only one husband. Furthermore, if every man had six wives, a large number of men would have none, since women comprise half the population. How equal or fair can such a system be for men, let alone for women? Zuma’s stock response to polygamy is that many of his male political counterparts (in South Africa and elsewhere) have concubines and mistresses, and that at least he is open about his multiple relationships. Whether open or secret, the term itself should cause us to cringe in an era in which UNAids cites “multiple concurrent partnerships” as the main driver of HIV and Aids. What kind of example is Zuma setting to the youth when the widely publicised unprotected sex that he had with an HIV- positive woman is followed within months by two (or is it three?) babies, all by different mothers?

What respect does Zuma have for the women that he acquires every few months? I can hear some readers say, but they marry him willingly. In response, I would ask you to name one situation in which there is a power imbalance in society in which the underdog is not said to “willingly” do what the master wants. We would do well to scrutinise the sub-text, such as the fact that one of Zuma’s wives (Nkosazana) divorced him before pursuing a successful career as foreign minister, while another (Kate) committed suicide after writing a damning letter about Zuma’s lifestyle. Clearly, it’s not all a case of happily ever after.

Is this relevant to the leadership debate? Should we be like the French, who believe that the private lives of politicians are out of bounds (except when a woman minister has a baby out of wedlock) or like the Americans who believe so passionately that the personal is political that they almost im-peached a president for telling half- truths about his philandering?

To me it’s not about copying one model or the other, but about putting our leaders through a battery of tests that include reflecting in their lives the fundamental values of our Constitution.

As I see it, even without all the other blots in Zuma’s copy book, his big-chief attitude towards women, not to mention his failure to recognise that a woman wearing a kanga might in fact not be asking to have sex, disqualify him from leading this great nation. It’s high time we find the voice to say that if any leader does not show equal respect for women and men — in deed as in word — then he or she is simply not fit to rule.

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