The news that President Jacob Zuma had furtively fathered his 20th child with a woman who is not any of his wives surprised me, but it did not shock me. We already knew that Zuma was, at the very least, a philanderer when he was acquitted of raping a young HIV-positive woman in 2006 while admitting to having (unprotected) sex with her.
So at first I was more titillated by the news than shocked.
Titillated by the juicy Sunday pressness of the first report. By the soapie gossip of the neighbours who prattled and tattled about how they’d seen the president and his entourage arrive at the baby’s family home to offer customary damages for a child born out of wedlock. By the brazen desperation of the mother, Sonono Khoza, who tried metaphorically to stuff the poor baby back where it came from by denying the very existence of her four-month-old daughter.
“What baby are you talking about?” she challenged a reporter from the Sowetan. If the playwright Wole Soyinka wrote a farce on crack, the script might have been almost as tragically comical.
But mostly I was titillated by the news that baby Thandekile Zuma’s grandfather — and possibly the 67-year-old Jacob Zuma’s future father-in-law — is Irvin Khoza.
This is not a man to be toyed with, even in jest. And early reports suggested that Khoza had not exactly jumped for the Johnnie Blue when he found out that his old friend the president and his daughter had made a baby.
To describe Khoza as chairman of the 2010 World Cup Local Organising Committee and owner of the legendary Orlando Pirates football club is like calling George Clooney “an actor”. I mean, it’s true, but it doesn’t begin to cover the range and meaning of the man’s power and influence.
Khoza is South African football’s hard man. He is variously known as “the godfather” and the “Iron Duke”. He is not known as the Iron Duke because of his magnetic personality. Although he does have a magnetic personality according to those who have experienced what it feels like to be iron filings in his presence.
If Khoza were a fridge magnet he’d knock all those adorable little Nelson Mandela magnets into the icebox.
So this is one really good reason to ask Zuma what the hell he was thinking when he started an (unprotected) affair with Khoza’s daughter?
But there are other reasons. And what has sobered me since the story went public is how very seriously South Africa’s citizens are taking this turn of events.
Something that I barely see as a scandal, in light of my feelings about Zuma’s relationships with women and his sex track record, marks an unacceptable crossing of the line for many others, most especially for those who have defended the institution of polygamy from people whose “otherness”, like mine, can make us insensitive to the point of contempt for this constitutional right.
So what seemed to me to be one small step from polygamy to adultery came as an absolute shock to others who viewed it as a transgression of the values and the legitimacy of such customary unions.
Polygamy played no part in my socialisation. Like bigamy, it was not only illegal, it would also have been taboo if I’d thought about it at all when I was growing up. Which I didn’t.
So when a polygamist was sworn in as our president, I had to sit down and think hard about my initial reaction (dismay) and dig deep into my own prejudices in search of tolerance, if not wholehearted acceptance of a practice that appeared to me only as exotic and vaguely intimidating by the customs of my formative reality.
So I read and I listened — to my colleagues and to commentators “for” and “against”. And there were several “for” advocates who persuaded me with their delicate arguments and modern sensibilities at least to acknowledge and respect those whose own formative reality embraces polygamy, be they peasants or presidents.
But now it is some of polygamy’s most persuasive apologists who, I see from front-page editorials, countless online comments and private conversations, are angry. I think I understand why.
The desire, even the need, to carve a respectable space for a polygamous president in a 21st-century democracy depended on Zuma sticking to the rules of a game that was a very hard sell.
In the face of mockery from outsiders, it became imperative to justify the institution to ourselves, to square it with the dignity of the man occupying the highest office in the land. It was always a fragile line to hold.
And now he finds himself dancing on the eggs of a significant shift in public sympathy.
People have used words like “shamed” and “embarrassed”. The Daily Sun used its front page to blast the president — about his “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy; about putting himself above public scrutiny; about how his views on sex and marriage are “splitting the nation”. Strong words from a paper read by millions of working men and women who typically support the ANC.
Nobody has mocked the institution of polygamy as Zuma has mocked it.