Jacob Zuma has always been open about his practising of polygamy
By Pumza Fihlani
BBC News, Johannesburg
South Africans have largely accepted President Jacob Zuma's polygamy - but revelations that he fathered a child out of wedlock have highlighted a gaping cultural divide.
In battling South Africa's HIV/Aids epidemic, the government advocates regular condom use and faithfulness to one partner.
Mr Zuma has three wives. And now a four-month-old daughter with another woman - 39-year-old Sonono Khoza whose father is a senior football official.
Opposition parties and newspapers, Aids activists and women's rights groups are up in arms - they accuse Mr Zuma of setting a bad example.
But the government has denied suggestions that his actions contradict his government's policies on Aids.
And the spotlight on Mr Zuma's sex life has once again opened the debate about his polygamy.
Some have questioned whether it should still be allowed in a country where more than five million people live with HIV.
Political commentator Adam Habib is among those who called for Mr Zuma to clarify his position.
Xhosas are among the groups who practise polygamy
"If Mr Zuma is convinced that there is no contradiction between his extramarital relationship and government's message on safe sex then he should explain this," Mr Habib says.
But Mr Zuma has responded by saying he has acted responsibly by acknowledging the paternity of the child and paying damages known as inhlawulo to the family of the baby's mother.
"It is mischievous to argue that I have changed or undermined government's stance on the HIV and Aids campaign," he said in a statement.
Mr Habib says while a "significant group of citizens" do not have a problem with Mr Zuma's polygamy because he has been "transparent" about it, the gap between those "for it" and those "against it" seems to be widening.
Zulus and Xhosas are among the groups were polygamy is practised, but it has largely become a rural phenomenon.
Traditionalists in rural areas embrace polygamy as an important part of culture.
Moses Twala, of the the Kara Heritage Institute, does not believe there should even be a debate about Mr Zuma's wives, or alleged mistress.
"It is un-African to discuss private matters publicly. It makes me question what purpose this serves except to degrade someone," he says.
"It is a normal for a man in our culture to be married but have children outside of his marriage, that has often been how other marriages have formed."
But many South Africans believe polygamy perpetuates inequality between men and women.
The debate is raging even among friends and colleagues on Johannesburg's streets.
Security guard Golden Mushwana says the practice is outdated - asking why a man would ever need three wives.
"Just because polygamy is part of some cultures doesn't mean it is good for society," he says.
But his colleague Tebogo Motshabi disagrees.
"We don't practise polygamy in [my] culture but if we were allowed to I would marry more than one wife, I don't think there is anything wrong with it if that's what you want," he says.
Mr Zuma's supporters have always rebuffed criticism of his polygamy - and they have been less receptive to critics linking his sexual habits to Aids policies.
To them, such criticism shows "cultural intolerance" or an attitude of "cultural superiority" against black people.
During white minority rule, black cultural practices had no place in society - the government of the time viewed them as inferior.
But black South Africans have for years defined themselves by their cultural values, beliefs and customs and it is important to many black people to retain that.
Mr Zuma recently defended having "many wives" in Davos
Cultural and ethnic leaders have been careful not to criticise Mr Zuma's lifestyle in public, lest they be accused of cultural intolerance.
South Africa's constitution recognises the practice under customary law.
And Mr Zuma has always been open about his embracing of Zulu cultural beliefs.
He recently defended having "many wives" at the World Economic Summit in Davos, calling for people to be more accepting of his culture.
"That's my culture. It does not take anything from me, from my political beliefs, including the belief in the equality of women," AFP news agency quoted the president as saying.
Some argue that this kind of openness is vital to the appeal he holds for many rural South Africans and traditionalists.
Is President Jacob Zuma's sex life a private matter?
Thank you for your comments. Please read a selection below:
Of course it wrong for Zuma to raise the race issue and the culture issue whenever he is criticised over his unsafe sexual practices. However, neither is it right for people all over the world to be so seriously affected by a man's sexual life, all this behaviour was out in the open before the man even became president, so i don't see why it should be an issue now. neither should people all over Africa be saying that he is setting a bad example and disturbing the messages on safe sex and the fight against HIV. If the person - your child, or you - are looking up to for moral guidance is a man you hardly know, who has been accused of raping someone, and once openly said that although he had unprotected sex, he bathed after wards, then something may be seriously wrong with your own value system rather than his.
Mubanga, Lusaka, Zambia
It's okay to have as many wives as possible according to his cultural believes. They say his culture is also supportive of having children out of wedlock. But does he think of the moral implications? For God sake he is a president and not just a poor man walking on the street. He represents South Africa. I think he should be more careful.
Seun, Zaria, Nigeria
Most polygamous men in Africa are in parallel polygamy. They have two or more wives simultaneously. In the western world most polygamous men are in serial polygamy, meaning they also have a series of divorces. My question is: Are we not bashing Jacob Zuma only because he is Parallel Polygamous, and very publicly so?
Kukubo Barasa, Kimalilo, Kenya
Private life is private, but when you are occupying high public post , you must have some moral ethics. Mr Zuma is an African President and he is promoting African village culture, trying to show the world that he is strong and capable in the bedroom without Viagra, but is that of any help to his country economically, politically and financially? I will be ashamed to be his wife no matter what ...............
Rosa Familusin, London, UK
I am 20 years old and already have a negative view on Males, except for my father. Mr Zuma has multiplied my negative views, it is hurting to think a man at his age behaves like the boys my age. Unfortunately as a public figure one has to make sacrifices, that will serve your nation, but it does not seem to be in the culture of Mr Zuma to do so. This is a pure message to tell me that its not about the service he has to render to the nation, but about the power he wants to hold
BIANC C, ennerdale, johannesurg, South Africa
Why should anyone compare polygamy with the culture or female genital mutilation or that of burning people as witches ? Should culture be abandoned simply because it is old ? On women's rights, none of Zuma's wives was forced into marriage. Is the western practice of entering into relationships with women and dumping them at will without any responsibility or commitment a better form of treatment for women, or is it just modern? Zuma's lip service and actions alone are not a basis for judging polygamy.
Bolaji Adeola, Cotonou, Benin
Before being a political leader, Mr Zuma is first of all son of a given culture. No matter how many wives he has. They are all officially married. If it doesn't have a negative impact on his profession, let him have up to a hundred thousand of wives.
Ulrish EKOTTO, Yaounde, Cameroun
At one point in time, burning witches was a 'cultural practice'. Should we allow these practices to continue? I can think of several cultural practices that could make a come back - cannibalism (New Guinea), female circumcision, burning crosses, lynching, etc... well...the list goes on. Isn't the whole point of civilization to get rid of stuff that is not relevant to current life ? Why is a dodo like Zuma telling us how to enhance our lives?
Ravi, Fresno, USA
Like Angela, I am curious to know about the rights about the women whom Zuma is married to and the fate of his child born out of wedlock. Also, does polygamy in these parts, permit a woman to take more than one husband? Some communities in Africa practice genital mutilation, which is extremely painful to women. Can this also be condoned in the name of "cultural practice?" There is a great deal of exploitation of women in the name of culture and tradition it appears!
Melanie, Bangalore, India
Double standards? I don't recall anyone ever asking any of the Middle Eastern Sheikhs at Davos - all of whom have wedded, publicly, more than one wife. And how come no-one thought it fit to question Clinton on his White House affairs? Zuma's polygamy is his business. Leave him alone.
Peter Wanyonyi, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Comrade Zuma's sex addiction is sending a wrong message in a country where illiteracy is a problem. People can now embrace sexual promiscuity and use him as a defence mechanism.
Divine Enyong, Cape Town
The slogan that this is my culture doesn't work. Does Mr Zuma Know that a culture should be dropped if it is not useful to the society practising it? Should we thus advocate and support the females genital mutilation as a culture just because certain people practice it? The risk for the multi partners of Mr Zuma to be contaminated by HIV or otherwise as he is having a sex with more than one partner? Why is it not also possible for the females to be married to more than one male? why only for males? Above all the word of God is against having more than one sexual partner at one time. This should be a failure for Mr Zuma as a leader of large nation to fail to stand exemplary in his personal life. Preach to your people to do what you do not what you say!
Tola Goitom, Ethiopia
what is new about zuma's polygamy? his confidence or his tendency to act like any of his rural counterpart? let alone every africa leaders it is the informal practice of many world leaders. to me his transparent approach is the only thing that makes his unique from other africa leader. therefore stop interfering on his personal matters! let him work to his country at his full capacity! thank you
akakevich, Addis Ababa Ethiopia
Bedroom matters are private matters. President Xuma is an informed chap and he knows what he is doing. He is old enough to be in the council of the wise. Even without formal education,he still reigns! What is the problem people?
Iworete, Bungoma, Kenya
Culture just like religion play a role in modelling human behaviour. As a political figure in society, Mr Zuma knows better polygamy is not in the good books amidst the health crisis the world is in now.
Barnabas Mpiima, Jinja, Uganda
Personally I have no patience with men of the Jacob Zuma lifestyle - but I am strongly persuaded that we all need to stay away from his multiple bedrooms - for the sake of our own sanity and rationale.
Let this matter be handled by the persons most impacted by his conduct - namely his official wives - who are significantly silent while the rest of the world is flapping so carelessly.
Margaret S. Maringa, Kerugoya (KENYA)
President Zuma needs to stop playing the race card every time someone criticizes his unsafe sexual practices. As the leader of a nation with one of the highest prevalence of HIV in the world, his actions speak louder than words. He already has 3 wives, and reportedly is going to take a 4th...do they bore him so much that he is having sex with other women? I agree with the poster who says that if he takes them as wives legally, that is OK, but to be having children with random women left and right is downright unacceptable.
I see nothing wrong with polygamy. Just because it is not favourable by the West does not make it wrong. However, children outside marriage is wrong and immoral. As President of the superpower of Africa, he needs to set an example to young black males in Africa and the Diaspora. He needs to stop acting like a village ram and instead act like the Father of the Nation. Now, more than ever, a good example from Mr Zuma is very vital to many young black males who have no regard for black women and who celebrate this disrespect through hip-hop.
Ernest Merrill, Antigua and Barbuda
SA has high number of HIV and Zuma should not be sleeping around with women outside his marriage. I have no problem with him if he takes them as wives but he must not preach to his subject that they should not have unprotected sex outside their marriage while he does it. He is 68 for heaven's sake. He must grow up and start building SA not by adding children. He's got 20 already.
Mzo, Johannesburg, SA
In a democracy where a politician is selected through a free election process, anything they do or say is open to public scrutiny and debate. As American President Harry Truman said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."
richard kadas, Naperville, USA
President Zuma is a public figure, whom people like me respect a lot, and I have also respected his rights to practice his culture, but now I think this condition is getting out of control. How many times are we going to accept his public apologies of not using a condom?
I am an outreach worker who always come across men who have cultural believes and they follow them, these men are difficult to work with especially when you have to convince them to access clinical services, like doing VCT, or any general check-up for that matter. They will tell you that they are opting to use Imbiza (Traditional medicine) than to use medication they get from clinics.
The Zuma's behaviour doesn't make things easier on us outreach workers who are sending out prevention messages instead his behaviour makes things worse as most of the men especially those who follow cultural believes always make examples about Zuma's behaviour. And that makes it difficult for one to convince such men to access the clinical services and the HIV/AIDS epidemic rates will be on the rise as a result of this.
The morale of the story is that, Yes, Jacob Zuma's sex life is a private matter but it is causing more damage done he can ever imagine, especially because most of the people he's destroying through his behaviour are the illiterate, who lacks knowledge on the HIV issues and this makes the situation to get worse.
I love and respect Zuma for who he is but I guess, now it is the time for him to get his acts together. Mr President, put your house in order or else, you are going to lose your major followers. Please stop what you are doing, I think it is time you do that, for the sake of your country and your people.
David Goitsemang Motswagae, Lenasia South, South Africa
Honestly , I think Mr Jacob Zuma's sex life is a private matter. We have to respect his private life thou he is our President but it doesn't mean that we have to know A-Z about him. Personal is Personal people come on!!!!
Nom Zondo, Midrand
I am not against culture. However such practises do not belong to the current time. the younger generation of south africans should not be part of that. The president is setting a very bad example to the modern nation of South Africa.
Pastor Tshingambo Mbundu, Canada
Comrade Zuma is a public figure. His sex life will always be a public issue, more so because of its "flamboyant nature". I think it ill-behoves a president to fail to practice in private what he and his government preach in public. He is setting a horrible example with his "sexcapades" in a country afflicted by HIV.
Mfor Divine Afuba, London, UK
I would like to know more about his culture's practice of polygamy in regards to the rights of women. If he is embracing equality, I would like to know his wives' rights of financial support, job seeking, domestic conflict and divorce, to name just a few issues that affect women world wide. It does seem to be contradictory that he have a child out of wedlock as this is disrespectful to his other three wives for whom the financial burden of another child will undoubtedly affect their financial well-being too. These are important issues because South Africans have made them important and Mr Zuma seems to only be paying lip service to ideals he does not truly believe in.
angela guthrie, silver spring USA