Polygamy still relevant but complicated
In Southern Africa, the reasons that governed the practice of polygamy had to do with the male partner’s needs and aspirations.
These reasons could include infertility (in both partners), family expansion through having multiple children, the desire for a male heir or impregnating a woman out of wedlock. Marriage in this instance is about restoring the dignity of both parties. Males are also the only ones who can burn impepho and conduct rituals.
“Our predecessors had bigger testicles, and by that I mean they had more than one homestead,” says Madoda Zungu of cultural organisation Isivivane samaSiko. “This is what earned him respect. Men would invariably suspect infertility to be the woman’s fault and take on another wife.”
While Zungu believes the practice to still be relevant because of the above reasons, he says urbanisation has meant that it is increasingly dangerous.
“Today that relevance comes with a host of diseases,” says Zungu over the phone from Eshowe. “You could be thinking about a new husband or new wife only to find they are bringing diseases with them. I can only recommend it to those that know themselves and are honest enough in their dealings.”
Zungu says with urbanisation, a lot of the structures that governed how men and women were prepared for marriage have fallen away. “When young women were coming of age, amaqhikiza would be around to play an advisory role … As far as men went, during the herding stages, there were young men known is izingqwele who would talk about how future men have to carry themselves.”
The impact of lifestyle-induced illnesses has also darkened the prospects for successful polygamous unions.
“So you find that a man has diabetes, for instance, and can no longer be the man of the house because it is killing his performance. A while ago a home was a home because the man was able to satisfy his wives and make them feel desired. Failure in this department leads to infidelity.”
Perhaps responding to this void, Dr Hamilton Nala’s Church of Plentitians caters to those who may have identified as Christians but are amenable to the polygamous lifestyle.
“When you are about to make that decision, one of the things we check is whether you informed your spouse about the possibility of that decision,” says Nala. “If not, we discourage you from making that decision until she agrees. This is to avoid feelings of rejection.”
Nala’s first wife eventually left him because of the messiness of the consultative process. “In my case, I took the decision having not informed my first wife because it was a decision I took not sure how I would handle and secondly, I was not sure where God stood on the issue. We spent seven years negotiating it and I opened up the debate to the church.”
Nala’s church split but it continues to grow as an enterprise. “For me, a woman who is educated makes it easier on the situation,” he says. “My one wife runs our religious school here. She ensures that it functions optimally. The other does finance and IT. The other one is focussed on nursing and will be in charge of our clinic.”
Nala believes that there are more women in the world than men so polygamy is justifiable whichever way one looks at it. Sexually, he says, what kills an arrangement like this is selfishness. “If I am in Durban and I spend three days with one wife, one day with the second wife and nothing with my third wife, that’s a slippery slope. You have to be faithful and fair. Your first wife especially, must not lose the respect she has for herself and feel deprived.”
While traditionalists are warning of the pitfalls of a polygamy that is taking place outside of the norms of moral codes that were set in place in place to safeguard it, it’s ironic that the practice’s loudest proponent is emerging from the ranks of the church. “In the Bible you’ve got your commandments but there is nowhere where it says you may not have more than one wife. I teach the followers of my church the same. A man just married two women here at church and got a huge support.”
Rural Women’s Movement activist Sizani Ngubane says in her view, the only way that polygamy would be on equal terms would be if women were allowed to have multiple husbands as well. “I don’t see how it benefits women because it is usually the men who are regarded as the head of the households. That means even if it comes to property rights, it is the man who gets to decide how those spoils are shared. In these unions women are breeding tools, whose value is linked to the gender of children they are able to produce.”
Ngubane says in practises such as ukuthwala (where a woman is coerced into marriage, sometimes by kidnapping) and ukungenwa (where a widow takes on her husband’s younger brother as her husband), are examples of polygamy by force. “Truth be told, it is a form of sexual slavery, where women prop up the households of itinerant men.”