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South Africa asks if polygamous president is appropriate for country fighting AIDS

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For his wedding to wife number three, President Jacob Zuma, 67, put on his leopard skins, a pair of fresh white sneakers, and with his bare torso jiggling, performed a traditional solo dance for his new woman. Soon he may have to do it all over again — he has another fiancee waiting in the wings.

Zuma’s latest wedding has fanned the flames of debate over his polygamy, a contentious topic that became an issue in South Africa during the election last year and will likely persist throughout his term in office.

A survey following his wedding last week to Tobeka Madiba (his fifth marriage in total) found that most South Africans are opposed to polygamy. Of the 2,000 people polled by TNS Research Surveys, 74 percent said that polygamy was a problem, including 68 percent of black South Africans surveyed and 86 percent of whites.

Zuma, who is believed to be the father of 19 children by at least six women, was recently criticized in the media for plans to expand the family compound at Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal province — where his most recent wedding was held — at a cost of $8.8 million to South African taxpayers.

There have also been questions raised about the cost to taxpayers for perks for his wives and children, including medial aid, security and free flights.

“To maintain such a huge family, Zuma needs far above his current income. Are those on pilgrimage to Nkandla paying his lobola (bride price)?” wondered Babusisiwe Vilakazi in a letter to the Mail & Guardian.

While South Africans are only allowed to have one civil union, multiple customary marriages are permitted.

Zuma’s traditional African lifestyle has proved popular with a large segment of the population, and his defenders argue that he is being open and proud of his many relationships instead of hiding mistresses and illegitimate children.

“This  practice (polygamy) is most significant to the Zulu nation and is very well respected,” said one online commenter. “Those who have acquiesced to modern Western cultures and religions should learn to keep their inherited beliefs to themselves and refrain from criticizing African traditional and cultural practices which they seem to think are primordially ancient and have no place in the modern world.”

However, some critics have argued that Zuma’s polygamy is sending the wrong message to a country with an AIDS epidemic and where billboard campaigns urge men to only have one steady partner to limit their risk.

Zuma has in the past displayed a shocking lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS, explaining in court, when he was on trial for rape, that he took a shower to prevent himself from HIV transmission after having unprotected sex with a woman he knew was HIV positive. Zuma was acquitted of rape, but his comments about taking a shower as protection created a lasting impression that he is casual about the threat of AIDS.

“No serious discussion has taken place about what example the captain of the ship continues to set for the nation in promoting concurrent, multiple sexual partnerships — the chief driver of the spread of HIV,” argued Justice Malala, a columnist for South Africa’s The Times.

“The explosion of support for Zuma on this matter by men — and some women — who say that it is part of African culture was interesting only in how it underlines the hypocrisy of sexism. Because it serves men to have multiple partners, the dangerous, outdated and sexist practice of polygamy should remain,” said Malala.

But despite Zuma’s outward bravado about his polygamy, it does not appear to be all smooth sailing at home. The South African press has carried numerous reports that the women are  “at war” and that second wife Nompumelelo Ntuli had boycotted the wedding ceremony.

In an earlier incident, KaMadiba, as his third wife is called in Zulu custom, elbowed second wife MaNtuli out of the way to stand next to the president during a photoshoot after Zuma’s state-of-the-nation speech last year.

Zuma’s office was forced to issue a statement last week explaining the roles of his wives. The highly unusual press statement, titled “Clarity on the spouses of the President,” explains that the Presidency’s “spousal office” will provide administrative support to the wives. It also  notes that in South Africa there is no official designation of First Lady or First Ladies and it  attempts to explain the official roles of his wives — a point of continuing confusion.

“The President will be accompanied by any of the spouses to official or public engagements, or all of them at the same time should he so decide,” says the statement. “This is his prerogative, and has been the practice since he took office.”

First wife Sizakele Khumalo, who would customarily take the lead, is reportedly a shy woman who prefers staying at the rural  homestead to following Zuma around on official engagements.

According to the press statement, Zuma’s wives may also be involved in community work on a voluntary basis. MaKhumalo, as his first wife is known, runs a vegetable garden project in Nkandla, while second wife MaNtuli is focused on “social development and she does a lot of work relating to assisting orphans and vulnerable children.” KaMadiba, meanwhile, will devote her energies to the fight against cervical cancer.

Zuma paid lobolo, or bride price, to KaMadiba’s family in 2007. The couple is already married under South African law and she has previously appeared with Zuma at official events.

In addition to his three wives, Zuma is engaged to Gloria Bongi Ngema from Durban. Her family reportedly presented “umbondo,” or gifts, to Zuma’s family last month. Umbondo, which follows the payment of lobolo, is the final ceremony before the wedding in Zulu tradition, however it is not known when Ngema and Zuma will marry.

In 2002, Zuma paid 10 cows as lobolo for a Swazi princess, but the wedding never took place.

He is divorced from Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the current Home Affairs minister in Zuma’s cabinet. In addition Zuma  was  married to Kate Mantsho, who killed herself in 2000, reportedly leaving a note that said her marriage with Zuma had been “24 years of hell.”

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