The second wife's wedding

The voyeur and keen observer of human nature in me could not resist when I was invited to attend a friend’s wedding in the Eastern Cape.

The initial astonishment at the fact that she was entering into a polygamous marriage had by now worn off, having sparked furious and fiery debates within our social circles. The highly emotive reactions had ranged from “what the %$#&#@?” to “well, at least she’s getting married”.

What struck me was that this was something completely out of my frame of reference. I had never imagined that in my lifetime I would entertain such a discussion about a modern, professional city woman. Surely this was a practice only the rural and royal indulged in. Any deliberations on polygamy had been looked at only through the prism of ANC president Jacob Zuma’s penchant for multiple wives and the often derisory comments from the chattering classes about the ruling party leader that one has grown accustomed to at dinner parties. Suddenly we were faced with the real implications of such a partnership as our friend’s impending nuptials drew near.

Attending the wedding was never seen as condoning our friend’s decision, but was simply a matter of being supportive of her on her big day. Admittedly we were curious to witness and observe the mechanics of such a ceremony. So off we traipsed to the Eastern Cape in a 10-hour-long and arduous yet wickedly fun road trip. We attended the wedding dressed in our finest traditional Xhosa regalia.

Initially there was a festive affair with all the hallmarks of a wedding of people of high standing in that community—we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves and pleased that we could be there to wish our friend well. But the fetid rancour of what it actually meant was brought sharply into focus when a few hours into the festivities a freak storm struck the village and destroyed all the marquees that had been set up for the lavish affair. We cut a most undignified sight as we fled the tents for dear life, clutching our long skirts as our plates of delicious samp and tripe flew in all directions. Had it not been so terrifying, it would’ve been quite hilarious.

Once people had made it to safety and gathered their composure, dishevelled weaves, extensions and wigs now firmly back in place, the hushed murmurs from the swanky city crowd and loud exclamations from the rural peasants alike were the same: it was a sign that the first wife was not happy!

Oh to be black: everything can always be attributed to witchcraft, even the weather.

Now it seems that another young, modern and affluent person is contemplating polygamy. If the tabs are to be believed, the grandson of Nelson Mandela, Chief Mandla Mandela is on the lookout for a second wife and he may be searching in that bastion of polygamy itself—Swaziland.

These two incidents have since got me wondering whether polygamy—often spurned by the middle classes as boorish and backward behaviour—is gaining currency in urban life?

Sadly, I suspect it might be. The reasons for this I believe are quite clinical. It all boils down to numbers. As has been well documented, black South Africans have the lowest marriage rates on the continent. A closer look at the figures reveals an even more dismal picture. According to the AMPS 2005 research, 67% of all white people between the ages of 25 and 34 were married or living together whereas the corresponding proportion of black people is at a mere 31%. Given that blacks are by far the majority in the country, this shows a very lopsided interest in marriage. I’ve been poring over reams of research recently, none of which seems to give clear answers about why this is the case.

An article in the Washington Post two years ago found the same state of affairs among the African-American community and the writer Joy Jones lamented the same issue. In her observations she found that men generally want to settle down much later in life and would rather spend their 20s and 30s fancy free and footloose. By the time they decide they want to commit, women of the same age group have become so accustomed to their independence and financial security, they don’t want to compromise this so often they choose to be alone.

So with marriage rates on the decline in the black community, the likelihood is that those women who desperately want to tie the knot will find themselves not being “the one”, but the second or the third.

Without disrespecting what is a perfectly legal and acceptable cultural practice, I despair, not only because of the widely held concerns over HIV infection in the country, but also because I don’t think this is a practice that bears the hallmarks of the kind of progressive and equitable democracy that we all dreamed of or that our forebears fought so hard for.

There’s a song I absolutely love at the moment by neo-soul artist Jasmine Sullivan. I belt it out at the top of my lungs every time I hear it.

I’m not scared of lions and tigers and bears, but I’m scared of loving you —

Why do we love love, when love seems to hate us so much?

It’s the raw honesty of the lyrics and the heart-breaking angst in Sullivan’s raspy, soulful voice that appeals to me. I don’t know about you, but I would rather ride a tiger any day than deal with the bleak story these statistics portray.


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