Zuma’s wives in a very tricky spot

Jacob Zuma’s wives are no doubt well advised, and seem to have no end of uncles, columnists and pundits counselling them and Zuma on whether they should marry Zuma and whether or not they are in fact married, given the status of negotiations.

But I am concerned that there is one matter that seems to have escaped these women. It is that once a husband has married once under customary law, the second and third marriages et cetera may only be recognised in terms of the Recognition of the Customary Marriages Act of 1998 if the man brings an application to court for permission to marry again. The application has to set out the property systems for his various wives.

The rest of the man’s wives have to be represented in the application, including his future wives. The idea is that the court then comes to the assistance of the women and children of the marriages in setting out how the marital property is to be distributed equitably.

This is not how it was done in the old days, but then, in the old days, you also didn’t have title deeds to land, cars and shares in companies. The question of how property is assigned to each wife and child could theoretically be handled in a fair way, if you had a man who was very scrupulous and careful about his affairs.

I think we can safely say that that is not the case with Zuma. What is the position of his wives and children in the absence of such a court application? The law does not say whether the marriages are rendered invalid.

We would argue that the marriages are valid, but the first and second wives are clearly prejudiced by the lack of application. Each time the man brings an application for a new marriage to be recognised, the wives are entitled to apply for a division of the existing property.

With no application being brought, those wives are then just in the queue at the time of the dissolution of the marriage and it is not clear how the money is then divided. The first wives certainly lose out in patrimonial terms with each new marriage, unless such an application is made.

Obviously Zuma might be reluctant to make such an application at this time as it would require him disclosing his assets to the court. But in the absence of such an application, the position of his current wives, legally speaking, weakens with each passing day and each new marriage.

Jennifer Williams is the director of the Women’s Legal Centre

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