Perils of polygamy in politics

“So, how many wives has your president taken this month,” chortled the toothy Englishman at the International Press Institute’s World Congress in Vienna last week. Ha ha, hee hee! A brother editor and I, both from South Africa, smiled uncomfortably and squirmed in our seats.

It’s not funny. I once came from a country where the president was revered as a beacon of leadership in a world with very few icons in politics.

Nelson Mandela was an utterly human president but a highly principled one, and his leadership values were cast for the 21st century.

At a time when the politics of vengeance ruled the globe, he preached reconciliation.

He breached sensitive geopolitics to call demagogues to account.

And he enunciated the principle and practice of women’s emancipation and empowerment in a macho country and continent.

Blessed with a strong women’s movement, the ANC swore in a ­post-liberation government that put women into high office and ensured that the Constitution became a lodestar for our every non-sexist dream.

Now look at us: our president – in Davos at the World Economic Forum earlier this year – was interviewed by Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria, who was little interested in South Africa’s views on the emerging global economy or the place of Africa in it.

Nope. Instead, all he wanted to know was how JZ managed his three wives when most men can hardly get it right with one.

Presidential polygamy is the most common question I am asked about our leader when I travel.

Until a short while ago, the image of South African women in politics was of speakers, mayors and premiers.

It was a narrative of empowerment and debate.

The task then was to turn political power into true emancipation for the large majority of women who still buckle under the weight of patriarchy and poverty.

Now, the debate is not about Zuma’s position on women but about his position in women.

The year started on a note that made the personal profoundly political when the president slipped up with Sonono Khoza, fathered a child with her and caused a national outcry.

In political debate, women have been reduced to cyphers – either girlfriends, wives or concubines.

Presidents are powerful and influential figures.

Like Mandela cajoled us into reconciliation and nationhood, former president Thabo Mbeki yanked us from our Eurocentrism to force us to recognise a common continental destiny.

He made Africa sexy. Now Zuma has made polygamy and sugar-daddyism OK.

Almost every week I see parades of men taking many wives or women at one go.

This ranges across society. From Theunis Crous – the ANC businessman who feeds a tabloid dream as he cavorts from Primrose Crous to Khanyi Mbau – to the president’s magnate nephew, Khulubuse Zuma, who reportedly has four fiancées lined up. FOUR?

The forces of traditional and customary rights across race and religion ride in the slipstream of the First Polygamist, claiming their rights to treat women as chattel.

And so, while ANC Youth League president Julius Malema was correct to push the line of “one man, one wife; one boyfriend, one girlfriend”, he has been forced to recant because conservatives are in control of the governing party.

While the strong women and progressives in the ANC are in a defensive position on this rise of patriarchy and the back-pedalling on gender, the rest of us don’t have to pretend to like it.

The Constitution is clearer on non-sexism than it is on customary and traditional rights.

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