'Polygamy was an act of power' - Have shows like Uthando neS’thembu changed how we view the practice?

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Musa Mseleku and his wives.
Musa Mseleku and his wives.
@musamseleku/Instagram

Have reality TV shows that give us a glimpse into polygamous marriages altered our perception of this practice that was once considered a no-go by most women?

We went in search of some answers.

When KwaZulu-Natal businessman, and proud polygamist, Musa Mseleku, announced that tickets to a dinner where he would be “casting” for his fifth wife were sold out, many read that as a sign, perhaps, of the changing perceptions around polygamy.

This dinner, which was to be held at a secret location, was R5 000 a ticket. However, founder of Ebehnezer Siyabonga Events, Sihle Seleke, clarified the purpose of the event, saying Mseleku would just be dining with these women, and not necessarily choosing a fifth wife.

“The idea for this dinner stemmed from the daily social media proposals Mseleku receives from single women across the country,” she said.

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The fee, according to Seleke, would cover Mseleku’s appearance costs as well as the venue, food and other activities planned for the evening. If you’d mentioned the possibility of a polygamous marriage to any woman five to 10 years ago, chances are they wouldn’t have entertained the thought, or that they would have scoffed it off as a practice that forces women to fight or even be against one another.

Feminists would even go as far as arguing that the practice takes women a hundred steps backwards, especially in an era where giant strides are being made to encourage women to be each other’s pillars of support.

Yet, if you were to make the same suggestion now in 2019, the thought of being in a polygamous marriage wouldn’t be as jarring, depending on what your relationship priorities are!

The truth is that reality TV shows like Mzansi Magic’s Uthando neS’thembu and its American counterpart Seeking Sister Wife are painting polygamy as less of an anomaly in the eyes of those who, say, grew up far removed from the practice.

Within two weeks of its premiere in 2017, Uthando neS’thembu swiftly made it onto Mzansi Magic’s list of the Top 10 most-watched shows confirming that most people have long been wondering what goes on behind the doors of polygamous homes.

“Several studies have long proven the effects of TV on people’s real-life behaviour. We often assume that this is something that only affects children, as we deem them mindless consumers of content,” says Johannesburg-based physician and self-confessed feminist Dr Nthabiseng Kumalo.

She adds, “TV has a way of making what was once intolerable come across as not so intimidating or uncomfortable. In this case, being exposed to more and more content about polygamy has made it a not-so-bad practice even though it could still be potentially making us uncomfortable deep down. And this is not to say that the content should not be flighted.”

Culture is very important because it helps set us apart as people, says Mosebetsi Radebe, a self-proclaimed cultural enthusiast.

“Traditionally, polygamy was an act of power and status, and its role doesn’t seem to have changed,” Radebe says.

He believes that the misconstruing and appropriation of polygamy could taint a practice that was once considered noble.

“This overexposure and events such as the dinner ‘to cast new a new wife’ could cheapen polygamy or even make it appear as a passing trend when that was never its original intention,” he argues.

*Nomandla Kani, a Communications Specialist and single mother, is about to become the second wife to a modern polygamist.

“I fell in love with Mr X’s aura the very first time I met him through work. Then a year later, we worked together again and hit it off slowly. Within six months of being together, he made it clear that he was too grown to be cheating and asked that I decide if I wanted to be in a serious relationship,” she shares.

Kani adds that she had never experienced that level of honesty and respect, even, in a monogamous relationship, which made Mr X’s offer instantly refreshing.

“He even insisted that we separate while I made up my mind,” she says.

READ MORE | How to deal with financial infidelity in your relationship 

Kani accepted his proposal earlier this year, has been introduced to the first wife and the pair plan to tie the knot in a traditional ceremony later this year, a seemingly unfazed Kani says.

But she admits that she still hasn’t gotten used to speaking openly about her relationship for fear of being labelled a homewrecker.

“Our reality is that monogamy hasn’t been working for us for the longest time, yet we are also in denial about this fact and shun any practice that suggests otherwise. For instance, there are many polyamorous relationships than we let on, but we still continue to treat the subject as taboo,” Kumalo says.

She also cautions that anyone who is suddenly warming up to the idea of polygamy should interrogate their reasons for doing so, and not just be a victim of a fad that they may want to opt-out of later. 

This is what some of our readers had to say about the subject:

The TV shows and the conversations that follow thereafter, have made women think it’s glamourous to be in a polygamous marriage. The assumption is that polygamists are rich and will afford one the much-coveted good life. I don’t think most modern women have the emotional maturity required — some want an easy way out without the admin of a committed marriage.
Lally Dladla
Watching the episode where Musa Mseleku had bought his wives brand-new cars left me with serious envy. He didn’t just stop there — he challenged his other polygamist friends to follow suit. In reality, however, we need to be careful of internalising what’s possibly been scripted and think we can fit it into our reality. We’ve seen enough examples of women who lack nothing materially yet are trapped in loveless marriages. We need to outline our values and wave them high for all to see.
Nomali Radebe
We’re a nation of hypocrites. How many times have we heard stories of someone’s dad secretly nurturing an ‘out-of-town’ relationship only for those children to make their first public appearance at his funeral? We read about married male celebrities who have families outside of their marriages yet when presented with an actual polygamy setting, we want to throw stones at those who choose to participate. When polygamy is practiced for genuine traditional reasons, those who believe in it should be left to play by its rules.
*Xola Xulu

*Not her real name

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