Jacob Zuma's comments that it's "not right" for women to be single, and that having children is "extra training for a woman" have caused dismay.
"It's unfortunate that these comments get made during women's month," said Gender Links CEO Colleen Lowe Morna. "We should be pushing the envelope in this month but instead it becomes a glorified Mother's Day."
Zuma's comments were made during a wide-ranging interview with television personality Dali Tambo in his TV series People of the South, which returned to SABC3 screens on Sunday evening after a decade-long hiatus.
Speaking about his daughter Duduzile's marriage to Lonwabo Sambudla, Zuma said he was very happy for her. "I was also happy because I wouldn't want to stay with daughters who are not getting married. Because that in itself is a problem in society. I know that people today think being single is nice. It's actually not right. That's a distortion. You've got to have kids. Kids are important to a woman because they actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother."
The latest in a series of gaffes from a man known for his conservative and traditional values, the comment served to show up the contrast between his dedication to some forms of women empowerment, such as employment equity, and his deeply entrenched patriarchal take on a woman's role in the domestic sphere.
The statement caused outrage among some viewers who took to Twitter to express their dismay.
"Zuma says being single [for women] is a problem and it's good for women to have kids because "it gives them extra training". Happy Women's Month ladies," ran a tweet from 702 Talk Radio host Redi Tlhabi.
Another woman, Rachel Gichinga, noted this left the "GOP in good company", referencing remarks made the same day by Todd Akin, a US Republican Senate hopeful who sparked global outrage by suggesting that "legitimate rape" rarely results in pregnancy due to a woman's biological defences.
Tambo's interview took him into Zuma's home in Nkandla, where he dined with the president and two of his children: his son Edward and his daughter Duduzile, along with her husband Lonwabo. The five were filmed conversing over their meal about everything from Zuma's fathering methods to the debacle involving The Spear painting, which showed the president with his genitals exposed.
Duduzile told Tambo in the interview that she once wanted to be a successful businesswoman, but that her priorities had shifted now that she was married with children. She was also vehement that she would never allow her husband to take a second wife, after her father told Tambo it would be up to the man, with input from the wife. "No way. Hell no," said Duduzile. "Not that I don't believe in it. My father practises it. I understand it, I accept it, but it's just not my choice."
Lisa Vetten, one of the country's foremost researchers and analysts on gender and violence, took issue with the implications of Zuma's sentiment that there was something wrong with a woman if she was single. "From our experience of counselling women, it increases the likelihood that those women feel pressure to get into relationships and stay in it no matter how abusive, unsatisfying and unfulfilling it may be, because they are well aware of the social stigma attached to those who are single."
Zuma's biographer, journalist Jeremy Gordin, was unsurprised by the sentiment. "For him it seems completely in character. His explanation, if he were to make it, would be that he is in favour of good family values, and he thinks having children is good for family cohesion," said Gordin, who wrote the unauthorised Zuma: A Biography. "He could have said worse," he added.
Zuma is known for his traditional views that are often at odds with South Africa's progressive Constitution—and with more liberal South Africans.
A practising polygamist, he has three wives: Thobeka Stacy Mabhija, Nompumelelo Ntuli and his first wife, Gertrude Sizakele Khumalo. At the beginning of 2010 he paid inhlawulo, or damages, after fathering a child out of wedlock with his old friend and soccer tycoon Irvin Khoza's daughter, Sonono.
However, Gordin warned that it wasn't fair to extrapolate that Zuma abused women because he was a polygamist. "On the contrary," he said. But he noted that Zuma was a traditionalist and while gender attitudes have moved, "he's just not there. But 99% of the Cabinet is not there. It's not unique to the president."
Zuma has long been the target of feminist criticisms. But he also presides over a government with enviable gender parity and representation of women at all levels: a longtime ANC priority. It is a contradiction that has marked the president's time in office. While he publicly advocates gender equity and actively employs women in his own Cabinet, he is often tone deaf to gender sensitivities. His private life and attitudes when it comes to women have also invited harsh criticism.
Tambo's interview with the president steered clear of dwelling on such controversies and delved into Zuma in the context of his role as a family man.
Duduzile, in particular, spoke glowingly of her father in an interview that was often poignant. Zuma was revealed to have never raised a hand to his children and often told them he loved them.
But he didn't preach on fatherhood, instead choosing to focus on the role of women as mothers.
"In a society based on equality we would want to see the same comments made about fathers and fatherhood," said Morna, a veteran gender activist in South Africa. "Would Zuma stand up and say if a man doesn't care for his children he would be any less of a man? I've never heard him talk about the importance of fatherhood."
Morna also pointed out that the public doesn't know exactly how many children Zuma has with "approximately 22" being the figure usually quoted. "What kind of a message does that send?" she asked.
Zuma's patriarchal leanings are deeply entrenched. Elsewhere in the interview he described how, growing up in a traditional Zulu environment, there was a distinction made between a man and a coward: the former faced fights, the other ran away from it. "You could not afford to be a coward or they'll say you have to cook, like a girl, instead of eating the food that is cooked by the girls," he told Tambo.
But whatever the reasons for his views are, one thing is certain: Zuma ultimately comes across as a patriarchal traditionalist rather than the leader of a modern and progressive democracy in the area of gender issues.
As Morna pointed out, equating womanhood with motherhood is an incredibly narrow view. "Yes many women are mothers and delight in that role – I am one of them – but that doesn't mean if you don't have children and you are single you are any lesser a being."
Indeed, like Vetten said, there are far worse things facing South African women: to be abandoned by a father, to be abused or to have a man father a child with you and fail to support you in any way is a bigger problem than being single.