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Page last updated at 09:39 GMT, Sunday, 10 May 2009 10:39 UK

Jacob Zuma's three first ladies

Jacob Zuma and Nompumelelo Ntuli at their marriage ceremony

By Andrew Walker
BBC News

The question that has had South Africa's media all of a twitter is: "Who amongst Jacob Zuma's three wives will be the country's next first lady?"

Mr Zuma, a Zulu, has married at least five women since 1973 and has 19 children.

Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma
Mr Zuma has remained close to his ex-wife, who will also be at the ceremony

The 67-year-old is still married to his first wife Sizakele Khumalo, to Nompumelelo Ntuli, 34, whom he married in 2007, and to his most recent wife Thobeka Mabhija, described by the South African media as a 35-year-old "Durban socialite".

Another wife, Kate Mantsho Zuma, committed suicide in 2000, and he divorced Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in 1998, but she remains a close political adviser and has served as a minister in government.

Saturday's inauguration ceremony - the first for a polygamous president in South Africa - may have provided a hint.

While Mr Zuma's three wives were all said to be present, only first wife Sizakele Khumalo accompanied him on stage.

He introduced her to the crowd but then added: "You will see other wives some other time."

Honesty

Polygamy is still common in rural KwaZulu Natal, where Mr Zuma is from.

According to political analyst Protas Madlala, many Zulus who are Christian have turned away from the practice, but it persists in rural areas because of the low standard of education and enduring poverty there.

Traditionally, the whole family would live in the same compound, with each wife maintaining her own round house, or rondavel.

People who stick to the traditions say that they may have more than one wife, but Christians maintain strings of mistresses, hidden away
Political analyst Protas Madlala

The first wife is usually expected to have some say in choosing the subsequent wives, to make sure the husband does not choose someone she will quarrel with.

"The man is expected to rotate his nightly visits," says Mr Madlala.

"I am a Westernised African, with an education, so I wouldn't go for a polygamous marriage," Mr Madlala says.

"But rural poverty definitely plays a part in keeping the tradition alive. Parents may depend on the bride prices that are paid, and may ask their children to go into it."

He says that although polygamy is not as common as it once was, traditions are associated with openness and honesty.

"People who stick to the traditions say that they may have more than one wife, but Christians maintain strings of mistresses, hidden away."

Sexual politics

By being closely associated with traditional practices, including polygamy, Mr Zuma has managed to create an image of himself as a straight-talking honest man among rural supporters across South Africa's ethnic lines, Mr Madlala says.

Jacob Zuma's youngest wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli, 34, raises her fist in victory after her husband cast his ballot for general elections
Nompumelelo Ntuli cast her ballot alongside Mr Zuma in April

This despite a well-publicised rape trial where Mr Zuma admitted having unprotected sex with a family friend who was HIV positive.

Mr Zuma was acquitted of the charge.

But the furore did not seem to matter to Zulus, who voted for Mr Zuma in their droves, abandoning the traditional Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.

"Many people I spoke to said they voted for Mr Zuma, not the African National Congress," Mr Madlala said.

He suspects that support came through amongst rural Xhosas too.

But should sexual politics have an influence over voters' choices?

Steven Friedman at the University of Johannesburg says not.

"If as a politician you believe it is OK to rape or treat people with violence then that will have an effect on the way you deal with public challenges."

"But if you think it's OK to marry five women I don't think it would."

Mr Zuma is deeply committed to traditional beliefs, he says.

"But I'm sceptical if the electorate cares much about it."

Tradition

So why has there been such a flurry of media articles about who will be the "first wife"?

A lot of the media speculation has been driven by American news values, something that doesn't really have much to do with South African political culture
Steven Friedman
University of Johannesburg

The ANC has said the matter is a personal one and there is no protocol to dictate who Mr Zuma should choose to be his "first wife".

It has also been suggested that one of Mr Zuma's daughters could take on the role.

But Mr Friedman says there is nothing in the constitution about any role for the president's spouse.

"A lot of the media speculation has been driven by American news values, something that doesn't really have much to do with South African political culture."

So does Zulu culture indicate who will get to shake Barack Obama's hand or take tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace?

Mr Madlala says it is likely that Mr Zuma will not have to choose one woman to be his official companion at state occasions or visits.

The Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu frequently takes more than one of his five wives with him on visits, he says.

"It may be that to avoid antagonising some of them he takes them all to state occasions.

"Or he may rotate among them, like the nightly visits."



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