When news recently came out that Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, had fathered a child out of wedlock, observers abroad were amused or nonplussed. This is, of course, a man who has had five wives over his lifetime, currently has three with one fiancée in the wings, and has fathered 12 children officially, with seven more previously rumored or confirmed in various sorts of relationships; a man who, on trial in 2006 for raping the HIV-positive daughter of one of his ANC comrades, claimed that it was OK he didn't use a condom because he took a shower afterward. So what was the big deal now?
In fact, however, many South Africans are appalled. And they're not just upset about the adultery itself, which is not more socially acceptable in polygamous societies than in monogamous ones, or the fact that he hasn't married the mother of his child. Instead, South Africans are asking themselves: How can a modern president practice polygamy in the first place? Isn't polygamy an archaic, patriarchic institution? Shouldn't economic progress, women's emancipation, and modernity have eradicated it?
The answer is more complicated: Actually, modernity has entrenched polygamy. Zuma may seem like a throwback, but in a sense he's really a model of a modern, married politician.
More than being about companionship or sex, polygamy is about money and status. Across the world, the practice has traditionally been the privilege of those who could afford to marry and maintain many wives and children. Practicing polygamy is a public sign that you have more resources -- economic, political, and personal -- than the average man. Marriage has always been used to build alliances between families and groups; this is even truer for polygamy, with its broad possibilities for connection. Like a fancy job or a big house, polygamy both creates status and derives from it. And gaining various kinds of statuses is still what drives men (and women) to polygamy in Africa today. Even in many of Africa's affluent urban centers, polygamy is on the rise as more men can afford more wives, and they benefit from the prestige and power that this status confers (though, as I discuss in my recent book on polygamy, numbers are hard to come by).
In modern times, polygamy offers some more subtle markers of power and status, given its connection to traditional culture. It's no accident that Zuma defends polygamy as "my culture"; for Zuma, practicing polygamy marks him clearly as a Zulu and connects him to pre-colonial African traditions, giving him an identity that could otherwise be lost in a globalized, Westernized blur.
Part of this, of course, is sincere, and part of this is what politicians everywhere do: deploying culture as an appeal to potential supporters. Zuma's polygamy plays well in rural areas, where supporters essentially lead traditional lives.
For Zuma, it has certainly paid off: Among Zulus, there has rarely been a leader more beloved. Particularly in a post-apartheid, multiethnic setting like South Africa, where cultural identities are constantly being tested and negotiated, polygamy is a key part of Zuma's political persona -- and hence, his power.