TO Molefe

Zuma's polyamory a lightning rod for bigots

2014-10-15 13:18

TO Molefe

This past weekend, the Sunday Times ran a story claiming that President Jacob Zuma's spouses cost us, South African citizens, R54.6m during his first term in office. That was the total spent by the presidential spousal support unit between the 2009/10 and 2013/14 financial years, according to presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj. The story's introductory paragraphs, which typically carry the smoking gun of a news exposé, said that on average, this amount is R3.8m more than what was spent on the unit in each year of former president Mbeki's term in office.

If I were editor and a journalist brought me the story as published, I would have sent them back to do more work. The article was, at best, half cooked. At worst, it is a stunning failure in qualitative reasoning, girded by prejudice. President Zuma has more spouses than former president Mbeki, so spending on the unit would naturally increase with president Zuma in office, even if the support the unit provides to the presidents' spouses remained unchanged.

SA's anti-polyamory prejudice

What Sunday Times relied on to make the story newsworthy is that president Zuma's polyamorous lifestyle is not considered acceptable by many. Thus the paper failed to account for the simple arithmetic fact that the unit has a greater number of spouses to support than it did before. A friend on Twitter even pointed out that the unit is actually spending significantly less on a “per spouse” basis under president Zuma, an occurrence explainable by the likelihood that some of the costs incurred by the unit are fixed.

Nonetheless the fact of the matter is that the Constitution guarantees everyone full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms. Section 9(3) in the Bill of Rights goes further to expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of marital status, among others. So it would be unconstitutional and discriminatory to change the way the presidential spousal support unit functions based solely on the fact that a president with multiple spouses is in office and has consequently increased the unit's costs compared to a president with a single spouse.

But this has not stopped some people from trying.

The priggish alliance

The story triggered a predictable statement of outrage from the Democratic Alliance, whose leaders have been nothing short of obsessed with president Zuma's polyamorous lifestyle.

The DA's leader, Helen Zille, for example, has on a number of occasions in the past used president Zuma's lifestyle to characterise polyamory as a perfect example of “the Aids superhighway”, causing HIV researchers and activists to accuse her of reviving racist stereotypes of “the promiscuous African”. Undeterred and wholly impervious to reason, Zille claimed last month that Zuma's polyamorous lifestyle has undermined the fight against Aids more than former president Mbeki's Aids denialism did, a claimed debunked by the fact-checking website Africa Check.

I suspect if the DA leader's track record is anything to go by, no amount of debunking and fact checking will steer her away from her beliefs about polyamory. Facts, research and liberal principles be damned, she is convinced that the “invisible chains of political correctness” are behind the opposition to her views on the subject.

And, scandalised by a polyamorist in office, the DA's parliamentary office began to question the spending of the spousal support unit only after president Zuma was elected president. They were presumably happy with the unit's expenditure under former presidents Mbeki and Mandela, whose ostensible monogamy did not offend their illiberal moral sensibilities.

Understandable, not excusable

In response to Sunday's story, Michael Cardo, the party's deputy shadow minister for the presidency, said he will be submitting parliamentary questions asking for a detailed breakdown of the costs.

“This will help determine the extent to which President Zuma's costly private life is being funded by the public,” Cardo said.

This statement is an astounding imputation of bad faith to the president and his office. But it is understandable, in a way. President Zuma's remarks about the excessive spending on the project to retrofit what were supposed to be security upgrades to his Nkandla home has not exactly filled anyone with faith that he has internalised the executive ethics code to which he is bound. Despite public protector Thuli Madonsela finding that he had violated the said code by not acting to protect state resources, president Zuma has disavowed all responsibility and the ANC has closed ranks on all possible (and impossible) fronts to protect him.

However, as understandable as the statement may be, it is not excusable given the facts. If the principle is that the presidential spousal support unit is a waste of public funds as it has neither defined nor reportable outcomes and outputs, as Cardo suggested further in his statement, let that be basis on which the opposition to its expenditure is mounted, not the president's marital status.

We need to get over our bias in favour of monogamy and accept that polyamory – or non-monogamy – if you will, is a relationship choice equal to any other. And we need that acceptance to filter through to how we think about and report news on the design and functioning of this country's public and private institutions, the office of the presidency included. Anything short of this bigoted and unacceptable.

- Follow TO Molefe on Twitter.

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