The Many Wives of Jacob Zuma

Why the South African president's polygamy is about more than womanizing.

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.

Zuma's enthusiastic embrace of polygamy challenges the widespread notion that modernity will make the "traditional" practice of polygamy disappear. And in fact Zuma is not the only African leader practicing polygamy. The king of Swaziland has more than a dozen wives. He enshrined polygamy into the country's constitution and holds an annual ceremony in which bare-breasted virgins compete for his approval. The social and cultural evolutions resulting from development and globalization have not destroyed traditional customs like polygamy -- they've just created new forms of them. And while official polygamy levels have been decreasing in most of Africa, informal polygamous practices such as "outside wives," where a man has both an official and unofficial wife, started springing up by the 1980s, particularly in urban areas. This creative hybrid allows men to appear monogamous and modern, while living de facto polygamous lives. In urban Ghana, for example, "sugar daddies," as these rich or powerful men are known in slang, cultivate poor or wealth-seeking women as unofficial polygamous wives, and gain status from it, if unofficially.

As Zuma told his critics, at least he does not hide his polygamy! To be an open and proud polygamist is to be openly and proudly African, or so formal practitioners might argue. And Zuma is among those who would likely hail polygamy as signs of an African cultural renaissance. For some African men, reinvigorating African traditions might be a way to free themselves from their colonial past, which suppressed traditional customs like polygamy. Some accuse African women who are opposed to polygamy of betraying their African roots.

Increasingly however, women across Africa are beginning to question a man's right to have many wives, not just for equality's sake but also in light of the HIV/AIDS crisis on the continent. A wife or partner of a polygamous man has no control over the sexual behavior of the other members in the union. And when one gets infected, all can potentially meet the same fate. More and more women are recognizing this and are demanding a change. Just take Swaziland, for example, where the constitutionality of polygamy has been challenged by none other than the king's daughter. Zuma's fathering a child out of wedlock also galvanized outrage in South Africa, where many fear his behavior will undermine attempts to halt the spread of HIV. Clearly, this is not the kind of renaissance that women want.

But are Zuma's exploits inside and outside marriage just a turbulent showcase of carnal desires, as some critics would have it? Not necessarily. He may in fact be a hypermodern operator who has figured out a way to have his cake and eat it too. For contemporary polygamists like Zuma, tapping into the prestige and power of polygamy will never be outdated. So if in "traditional Africa," more wives meant more power, in modern Africa, sometimes they do too.



Sudan Is Still Up to No Good

Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir is playing a breathtakingly cynical double game: harboring a notorious Ugandan death cult while pledging to work for peace in Darfur.

The Lord's Resistance Army has come to Darfur, Sudan, and that is not good news for anyone. The Lord's Resistance Army is a vicious militia led by self-proclaimed messiah Joseph Kony, and though he does not appear to be with the contingent that has moved into Darfur, Kony is widely and rightly regarded as one of the most heinous war criminals still on the loose in the entire world.

The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has long operated as a hybrid between a cult and a rebel army. Kony and the LRA originally sprang up in northern Uganda and waged a brutal campaign trying to overthrow that country's government. Millions of Ugandans fled the fighting, and the LRA engaged in virtually every depravity known in warfare. The LRA's ranks have been swelled with kidnapped child soldiers, girls are regularly treated as sex slaves, and innocent civilians are maimed and killed in a fashion too brutal to describe.

In recent years, Kony and his forces have fallen on harder times, though their brutality has not diminished. Dislodged from northern Uganda, Kony and his troops first fled into northeastern Congo and then the Central African Republic. However, the Ugandan army -- with quiet assistance from the United States -- has remained in dogged pursuit of Kony and his forces. The LRA is a relatively small force these days, probably numbering less than 1,000 hard-core fighters who remain loyal to Kony, but it is still causing mayhem and suffering well disproportionate to its size. Kony and his men have killed around 2,000 civilians in the last year and driven another 450,000 from their homes. Although the Ugandan offensive against Kony has suffered some significant missteps along the way, it has put increasing pressure on the LRA.

Just this week, the Enough Project learned from multiple, credible sources in the field that elements of the LRA had crossed into Darfur. These forces appear to be seeking safe haven under the protection of the Sudanese military, and Sudan's notorious president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been a longtime LRA patron, so this does not come as a surprise. Clearly, Kony and his deputies believe that Sudan is one of the few places left where the Ugandan army will not pursue them, and they are likely increasingly desperate.

The even larger story is what all of this says about Sudan and Bashir at a time when U.S. diplomacy has been geared to striking a new tone in the relationship. Although Bashir has been eager to portray himself as willing to repair relations with the world after last year's International Criminal Court indictment, and the United States in particular, giving safe haven to the LRA is yet another slap at Darfuris, at Washington, and at fundamental human decency. The evidence clearly suggests that advance LRA scouts coordinated with Sudanese armed forces well in advance of the LRA's arrival in Darfur, and it seems implausible that local Sudanese armed forces commanders would welcome the group in Darfur without seeking approval from Khartoum, including Bashir. There are also suggestions that the LRA has received direct logistical support from the Sudanese army since arriving in Darfur.

The last two weeks have offered breathtaking examples of Bashir's duplicity. Even as he traveled to Doha to proudly declare "the war is finished" in Darfur after signing a preliminary peace deal with a rebel faction, Sudanese troops intensified military attacks in Darfur that killed hundreds and displaced thousands, according to the United Nations. During a recent campaign speech in southern Sudan, Bashir equally proudly declared that his party is working to end "insurgent attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army in the south." As he spoke, Bashir's own armed forces were providing the LRA with the cover it needs to regroup in Darfur, rearm, and again terrorize innocent civilians across the region.

International diplomats are already deeply concerned that an independence referendum for South Sudan in January 2011 could result in a return to the North-South civil war that claimed 2 million lives in a conflict that ran for 20 years. The LRA's arrival in Darfur and a recent uptick of its activities in southern Sudan suggest that Bashir and his allies remain willing to once again use proxy forces as their favorite method for sowing mayhem and maintaining their grip on power. In Darfur and South Sudan, the Sudanese government has used proxy militias, such as the LRA and the janjaweed, to carry out the most egregious attacks against its enemies while trying to maintain a thin veneer of plausible deniability.

The news of the LRA's arrival in Darfur should be a clear wake-up call for not only U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, but the entire international community. It is precisely because Bashir has never been held accountable for his past actions that he feels fully empowered to welcome the LRA into his arms and engage in dangerous adventurism on multiple fronts. In recent months, there has been an increasing push by some elements within the Obama administration to ease sanctions against Sudan. The arrival of the Lord's Resistance Army in Darfur will likely let the air out of that particular balloon, and congressional oversight committees might take some genuine umbrage that they were not informed of these developments in a timely or transparent manner. Both Kony and Bashir deserve to face their charges fairly at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but that will only happen if the world no longer treats accountability as an afterthought.