BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 13:59 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

How do Zulus explain polygamy?

President Zuma and his wives

By Elizabeth Diffin
BBC News Magazine

South African president Jacob Zuma, on a visit to the UK, has been criticised by some in the British press for having three wives. But while the practice raises eyebrows in the West, how is it justified in his home country?

Trade talks and his nation's hosting of the World Cup are on the agenda for Jacob Zuma's three-day state visit to the UK. But interest has mainly focused on his consort - Thobeka Madiba, the latest woman to join his polygamous marriage.

In the UK, to be married to more than one person at a time is illegal. But the Zulu ethnic group, of which Mr Zuma is part, practises polygamy by tradition. This clash in attitudes dates from the 19th Century, when white missionaries preached that conversion to Christianity entailed divorcing one's "extra" wives, says Ndela Ntshangase, a lecturer in the school of Zulu studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

President Zuma
President Zuma attributes his polygamy to the Zulu culture

And British colonisers "pushed [monogamy] down the throats of black people" through taxes that rose for each wife, and land allocations with insufficient space for polygamous family units, says Mr Ntshangase.

However, polygamy in South Africa is still a fact of life for many. While urban Zulu communities have found it difficult to uphold the arrangement, those in the rural homelands have maintained the tradition. Muslim populations and other cultural groups in South Africa also practice polygamy.

While some in the British press have seized on Mr Zuma's attitudes to marriage, he defends his private life as part of his culture.

"When the British came to our country they said everything we are doing was barbaric, was wrong, inferior in whatever way," he told Johannesburg's Star newspaper this week. "I don't know why they are continuing thinking that their culture is more superior than others."

So how do they explain the tradition?

Boy-girl balance

In southern Africa, the population skews slightly female, says Mr Ntshangase, who says the male population is partly depleted by "unnatural deaths" in war and other dangerous activities.

"If you say it's one-to-one, you will have a big chunk of ladies who aren't going to have husbands. What do you do with them then?"

But this gender imbalance argument holds no sway for Protas Madlala, an independent political analyst, who declares it "unsophisticated".

Elders also use polygamy to warn young men that they could lose out on love if they don't behave.

"In order to win a girl, you must be a good boy," says Mr Ntshangase. "Responsible young men become responsible husbands."

The Queen and Mrs Zuma
The president's most recent wife accompanied him on his state visit

In Zulu culture, "every family member must work for the betterment of the family". And a way to improve a family's status and income is to add extra members, he says, and adds that additional wives can be particularly advantageous in an agricultural society.

And polygamy offers women a degree of economic well-being they might not otherwise attain, says Mr Madlala.

"Polygamy fits into the socio-economic inequalities we have. It gives [the wives] insurance of sorts."

But the theory that polygamy favours equality for women holds little water for Leslie Mxolisi Dikeni, a research associate at the University of Pretoria.

"On paper there is total emancipation of women, but traditional forms of polygamy are not allowing for that," he says. Even in so-called equal polygamous marriages, there's innate gender imbalance between the husband and his wives.

Spectre of Aids

Some of those who support polygamy believe a monogamous system would mean more unattached women, who would then have affairs with married men, says Mr Ntshangase. He claims that in a polygamous marriage, a woman will share her husband instead of getting divorced. "[Divorce] is another type of polygamous marriage. It's just not happening simultaneously or concurrently."

Zulu village
Under apartheid, polygamy thrived in rural Zulu villages

But polygamy does not stop men and women straying. South Africans who are uneasy about their president's lifestyle point to the fact that he recently fathered an illegitimate child, says Mr Madlala.

Nor does it necessarily mean an end to separation - Mr Zuma has already been through one divorce.

Even though polygamy is a part of its traditions, there is a new reality that raises questions about whether this lifestyle has a place in modern South Africa. More than 5 million people in South Africa are HIV positive - the most of any country in the world.

"South Africa is almost the Aids capital of the world," Mr Madlala says. "Our president is not really a good model."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Polygamy is the future not the past. Women get to share not only one man but also a sisterhood with the other wives. One man is more than enough. The women also get to share childcare and the children grow up in a larger social group where there is less likelihood of child abuse and neglect. I can see lots of advantages.

David Cadogan, Richmond

Polygamy is practiced more around the world than monogamy and has been the case since modern humans evolved. The propensity to mate polygamously can be broadly described as a cultural preference but this is really due to many factors largely dependent on the type of environment when these practices came about and would have been genetically advantageous. While polygamy is not as beneficial in evolutionary terms to women as it is men (unless the woman is the first wife) I would not say this is an example of the emancipation of women. It is too easy to be dismissive and overly moralistic when it comes to practices which we are not used to. Whether President Zuma treats each wife equally or well is beside the point and is somewhat irrelevant to the fact that he practices polygamy.

Suzannah Lipmann, London, UK

Why anyone would want more than one wife is beyond me, but that's the way of life in some countries and who are we to tell them they are wrong? Funny as it may seem but we are not always right and have no right interfering in other people's traditions. We may be open to changing our whole way of life to accommodate every Tom Dick and Harry who complains about everything we do but that's because we are weak and pathetic. What we should do is stand our ground and look after our own traditions. If foreigners don't like what we do, they'll just have to accept the way we are.

Alastair, London

Why is it we consider Western culture the moral barometer to which all other countries must adhere? The hegemony of Africa should have ceased with the death of colonialism. Apparently our press still believe themselves to be on a 'civilising' mission, akin to Victorian missionaries.

R. Williams, Liverpool

It is a debate that is set to continue, especially in a country with strong Christian bias. The "wrong" thing, as far as the law and bigamy is concerned, is that a person can be prosecuted and sent to jail for having more than one wife in the UK - even if the wives live together and are completely happy with their situation and lifestyle. However, a married man can have many affairs with multiple women without his spouses' knowledge and, in the eyes of the law, he is doing nothing legally "wrong".

Masu, Stockton

What concerns the South African taxpayer is not so much that the president is polygamous - but who is paying for the 4 wives (one divorced) and 20 children? Given that the president has a track record of unfortunate financial mismanagement, it's doubtful that he can afford his lifestyle on his salary. Where is the extra money coming from?

Rob, Cape Town, South Africa

This is one more example of the British press/media creating a moral panic, and the west in particular pushing their values on to the rest of the world. The Aids issue is not due to lax moral standards per se in third world countries, but as a result of lack of sufficiently available medicines which are controlled by western pharmaceutical companies and distribution of financial aid which is consistently reneged upon by the wealthy west. Anyone in today's world who supports their own cultural identity and practices should be commended, not condemned. But that would not make good press.

Arthur Hassall, Manchester. UK

It is an interesting point that the missionaries in the 19th century were encouraging people already in polygamous marriages to divorce their 'extra' wives ... what happened to two "wrongs" don't make a right?

Gareth, London

Polygamy is only legal in South Africa under certain circumstances. Generally polygamy is only a choice for people who have a much more rural/traditional upbringing. As a Christian I believe polygamy is a wrong choice to make, but I also have to recognise and respect that it is not my place to judge. As a republican I don't believe the royal family is justifiable, but I have to respect that it is firmly entrenched in British culture and would have to treat the royal family with respect as the constitutional Monarch. Why can't British people treat the South African Head of State with the same respect due him as the legitimate and duly elected President of a sovereign state? What is all the fuss about?

Gary Morrison

But what about the women? Are they only allowed one husband? Surely, if women are only allowed one husband but men are allowed several wives each, you would need more than a "slight skew" in the population male : female ratio for there not to be very large numbers of unattached men.

Helen, Berkshire, UK

I believe part of the origin of polygamy in Zulu culture was because for a long time it was a warrior culture in which many men died. In that circumstance, the man's brother would have to marry the widow - so it was a way of ensuring women were provided for. It's also very much a status thing. I have a Zulu friend with more than one wife. It shows he can afford a large household (he has over 25 children) and because he's a member of the royal family, it's expected of him.

Deborah, London

Polygamy is still part of Western culture, but there is a taboo on speaking about it. Several of my friends are in polygamous relationships where all partners are aware of the other people involved - this is not the same as having an affair, or cheating. They are not married, but that does not detract from the serious footing of the relationships - which have in some cases lasted for several years. Regarding the risks of Aids and HIV transmission - the Poly practitioners I know are some of the most fastidious practitioners of safe and protected sex. Moreso than many of the serial monogamy practitioners I know, who will have a series of liaisons with people whose names they don't even know and won't be able to remember the following morning whether they even used protection.

Kate Jones, Lancaster UK

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