/ 13 July 2021

All the president’s women

Inglorious husband: Jacob Zuma with Gloria Bongekile Ngema, one of his four current wives. (AFP)

In 2002, Jacob Zuma asked a princess to marry him. But this was not a fairytale romance.

Sebentile Dlamini, sister to Eswatini’s King Mswati III, said yes, and the families agreed on a lobola of 50 cattle.

At the time, Zuma – then deputy president of the Republic of South Africa – was already married to several women. 

He met his first wife, Gertrude Sizakele Khumalo, in 1959 as a 17-year-old boy, but she had to wait until 1973 for him to make an honest woman of her. In the meantime, Zuma had joined the fight against South Africa’s racist apartheid regime, and spent 10 years in prison on Robben Island (the same place that Nelson Mandela served his life sentence for sabotage). MaKhumalo has always been the often unseen and always unheard matriarch of Zuma’s homestead in Nkandla – even in the long, lonely years when Zuma was in exile.

It was in exile that he met his second wife, Kate Mantsho. They married in Mozambique, where Zuma was overseeing intelligence operations for the ANC, in 1976. She spoke all 11 of South Africa’s official languages and contributed to the fight against apartheid. But she would not leave their union alive. She died by her own hand in 2000, leaving a note addressed to her husband, whom she forbade from attending her funeral. Their marriage was “24 years of hell”, she wrote.

It was also in exile that Zuma met and married his third wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who would go on to serve in his cabinet and lead the African Union Commission. They married in 1986, and got divorced in 1999.

Rest in peace: The late Kate Mantsho described her marriage to Zuma as ‘24 years of hell’. (Gallo Images)

His fourth wife was Nompumelelo Ntuli, whom he married in 2008. By then South Africa was well into its new democratic dispensation, and Zuma had risen to become ANC president and was soon to become president of the country. Later, Zuma accused MaNtuli of trying to kill him with poisoned tea and banished her from Nkandla. She denies the allegation, and later described her marriage to Zuma as “five years of hell”.

Thobeka Madiba became his fifth wife in 2010, but later sued him for failing to pay R14 000 ($1000) in monthly maintenance for one of their children. She was also barred from Nkandla. 

He married his sixth wife, Bongekile Ngema-Zuma, in 2012.

All this time, Princess Sebentile was waiting for a wedding that never came. In 2008, when she learned that Zuma would be marrying MaNtuli first, she checked herself into a hospital for depression. But maybe, given Zuma’s track record, she had a lucky escape.

Unsuitable to lead 

In December of 2005 Zuma was charged with rape. Khwezi, his accuser, was the 31-year-old daughter of a deceased struggle comrade. She chose to be identified by a pseudonym, for her own safety. Zuma at the time was more than double her age.

Zuma denied the charges, claiming that Khwezi had consented. The trial made international headlines, but it was his comments during the trial and the behaviour of his supporters that would propel the case into infamy.

On the first day of the trial, Zuma’s supporters carried a poster asking: “How much did they pay you, nondindwa [bitch]?” – a reference to Khwezi. The next day, a group of mostly female Zuma supporters set alight pictures of the complainant with her first name and surname, shouting: “Burn this bitch.”

To his critics, Zuma’s own words during the trial demonstrated precisely how unsuitable he was for the office of president. Admitting to having had unprotected sex with Khwezi, who was HIV-positive, Zuma said that he had taken a shower afterwards to minimise the chances of contracting the virus. Zuma’s testified further that he went ahead with condom-less sex because, in his Zulu culture, he could be accused of rape for leaving a woman sexually aroused without relief.

Zuma was acquitted in 2006. In the aftermath, Khwezi was revealed to be Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo. After her home was burned down, and after receiving multiple death threats, Kuzwayo was offered asylum in The Netherlands. She died in exile in October 2016.

Consequences, at last 

In 2009, after a bitter intra-party faction fight, Zuma became president of a nation that is often hostile to its women. The rate of femicide in South Africa is five times higher than the global average, and most South African women will experience some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime.

Although Zuma was no stranger to corruption allegations, it was the revelation that he had spent R65-million of taxpayers’ money (then worth $7.8-million) to refurbish his personal accommodation – his Nkandla homestead – that really turned the tide of public opinion. That story was broken by the journalist Mandy Roussouw in the Mail & Guardian in 2009. She and the newspaper were accused by the presidency of “setting out to embarrass the president”.

These allegations were investigated and then confirmed in 2014 by advocate Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s public protector. In a report that was more than 400 pages long, Madonsela explained in excruciating detail how Zuma had “benefited unduly” from these refurbishments, which ultimately cost the state around R246-million ($23-million at the time). Some of these details – like the bit where he tried to describe his fancy new swimming pool as a necessary firefighting tool – made Zuma the butt of national jokes. Zuma’s allies hit back, questioning Madonsela’s credentials and suggesting that she was a CIA agent. Zuma himself, just recently, said his problems began with a conspiracy organised by that “beautiful little girl”, referring to Madonsela.

Despite the damning evidence presented by Madonsela, Zuma clung on as president for another four years. The corruption scandals increased in volume, and amounts. Soon South Africans started using the term “state capture” to describe the relationship between Zuma and the Guptas, a family of Indian businessmen who had allegedly bribed their way into the heart of government (they deny these allegations, but fled the country before facing justice).

Under enormous public pressure, Zuma himself set up a commission of inquiry into state capture, to be chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, shortly before he was unseated as president by his party rival, Cyril Ramaphosa. 

By December 2020 the commission had interviewed 278 witnesses and amassed a whopping 159 109 pages and one exabyte of data of evidence. None of that evidence has come from Zuma himself. His refusal to appear before the commission is what led to his arrest last week. “The only appropriate sentence is a direct, unsuspended order of imprisonment, because the alternative would be to effectively sentence the legitimacy of the judiciary to inevitable decay,” said Justice Sisi Khampepe, as she signed the warrant.

Leopards, spots, etc: Jacob Zuma and fifth wife Thobeka Madiba, who would later sue him for child maintenance.

Predictably, the former president – through his foundation, the Jacob G Zuma Foundation – attacked the decision. It was “judicially emotional,” he said, and inconsistent with the constitution.

But this time around, his patriarchal objections made no difference to the end result. Late last Wednesday evening Zuma handed himself over to the Estcourt Correctional Centre, a low-security prison where he will serve his 15-month sentence for contempt of court. South African prisons are gender-segregated, which means he will be surrounded entirely by men. Perhaps Major General Nonhlanhla Zulu, the policewoman who was part of the team that persuaded him to surrender, convinced him he would be happier in the company of men. 

This story first appeared in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. To subscribe, send a WhatsApp/Signal message to +27 73 805 6068.