Just another day in Mzansi

I suppose being Xhosa I should have known more about isiThembu. I knew it had something to do with Xhosa royal households, where kings with more than one wife had a separate hut for each wife and their children, and they all lived together around the Kraal on the kings’ land. But I didn’t know much more than that.

So as I drove to Katlehong for my first time—armed with careful directions, a Google map and my cellphone in case I got lost—I wondered about where I was headed.

The day’s discussion at Thokoza Church Hall on Nkakhi Street was going to be about polygamy vs isiThembu.
I considered the possibilities. Was there royalty in the streets of Katlehong? And how, by the way, could you possibly modernise such ancient traditions?

Well, turns out when you add HIV and Aids to any discussion, you can bring it well into the 21st century.

An inyanga in a Western skirt
At 8:45am on the last Thursday in August, I picked up an inyanga (traditional healer) near Natalspruit Hospital. Mpumi Ntshangase—who had invited me to the community discussion organised by Women in Partnership Against Aids—would be my guide.

Carrying a white leather bag and dressed in a Western-style skirt with a black wrap covering her head and maroon lipstick held in place with carefully drawn lip-liner, she was waiting for me opposite the BP garage near the hospital.

As we drove to the venue, Ntshangase explained how these old traditions merged with concerns about HIV/Aids, and how the discussion would help women understand more about both.

“We want to talk about the impact that both types of relationships have on HIV/AIDS,” she said. “And we want the women in these kinds of relationships to learn to stand on their own.”

When we arrived, I sat back to watch the parade of vibrancy and diversity that would make up the audience. There were women in African traditional gear, women dressed in black skirts, black opaque stockings, black heels and black and white striped shirts who were part of Katorus Traditional Healers’ Association. There were regular grannies, and a handful of Muslim women dressed head to toe in modest religious attire; all I could see was their eyes. A group of teenage girls wore red traditional skirts, with red and white cloths over their shoulders, a white shell hanging at the centre of their foreheads. Ntshangase told me that these were young trainee sangomas (traditional healers).

As the choral music began, a group of children in snow-white shirts and black bowties sang in tribute to all women, praising them as heroes and giving thanks. Then the Muslims and Christians said their prayers, and the sangomas sang to the resonating sound of the African drum, burning incense and giving thanks and praise to the ancients. It was time to begin.

The tribes have spoken
Sheryl Hlongwane, a traditional health practitioner, dressed in African traditional cloaks, took to the stage first to unpack isiThembu. She romanticised the practices of ancient times, saying that being chosen for isiThembu was a sign that the women were respectful, respectable and had been brought up well.

“If the husband was looking for a second wife, the first wife would choose that wife from her community,” Hlongwane explained. “When she’d approved the potential wife she’d convince her husband of the woman she likes.”

It was the first wife’s responsibility to teach the other wives how to act, she said.

I had visions of my girlfriends suggesting another suitor for their men. Needless to say, that vision short-circuited. No black man living among the born-frees or model-Cs could ever dare to suggest a second girlfriend, let alone a second wife. In my opinion, my generation is intolerant of any form of infidelity, no matter how well-disguised.

Elizabeth Tshabalala, also a traditional health practitioner, took the stage to tackle the issue of polygamy, and said that it was made possible by modern times, which had men working in the city, away from their rural wives.

“These men would have a wife in the rural areas and another one in the city, without the consent or knowledge of the first wife,” Tshabalala said. “The city wife is umfazi wephepha,” meaning that her marriage was well-documented, with legal papers to prove it. Meanwhile, the rural wife, or the first wife, would be lucky to find her name in the Nduna‘s (the rural community leader) books to prove that she married the man on a certain date. Should anything happen to the husband, it’s the wife with the papers who inherits.

“Unlike isiThembu,, these other wives are not virgins and this increases the risk of diseases,” said Tshabalala. It was clear that for Tshabalala, polygamy was far worse than isiThembu.

Two Muslim women, Smangele Dlamini and Nomvula Hlatywayo, represented their views on polygamy and marriage. “Islams don’t date, we don’t test drive the car, it’s either you buy the car or you don’t. We do not condomise in Islam, we completely abstain until we’re married.”

Men in their religion, they said, were only allowed a maximum of four wives.

“If there are four, it is a law that the man must be just and treat them all the same. This means if the husband buys one wife a house valued at R500 000, then he must buy them all houses valued at the same amount within a similar area. We must be equal in terms of material things.”

I had no idea that material things could play a part in such a modest religion. But I enjoyed this explanation: a man with more than one wife had to be very wealthy or extremely tight-fisted.

There may be reasons why a husband needs to get a second wife, they explained, such as when the first wife cannot bear children or perform her “wifely duties”. But the husband is supposed to remain just, which means that after communicating with the wife that wants another wife, he can then go off to find his own second wife.

Anna Laka, a Christian from the United Reformed Church in Southern Africa, had this to say: “From the Adam and Eve days, God took Adam’s rib and made him a partner, one wife—not many wives.” She attributed polygamy to a lack of self-control, discipline and responsibility. “Polygamy doesn’t help, instead it spreads Aids.”

By the time lunch came, I still had no way of confirming if there was a king who built his wives’ houses around a Kraal in Katlehong. But I also knew that if this was a movie, we could call it The Women of My Motherland. And I had a front row seat.

The real rainbow nation
It is both fascinating and incredible to see one’s nation in full view, up close. For the first time I understood the concept of a rainbow nation. Here we all were, in one hall, old and young, sangomas in a church hall, Muslims and Christians, coming together to tackle one issue as a unit—an issue that evidently affects us all.

And late that afternoon, it got political.

One elderly woman wondered aloud if maKhumalo chose maNtuli, referring to President Jacob Zuma’s wives. The women in the hall murmured and shook their heads, saying “no” and “poor maKhumalo”.

I wondered about Zuma’s position. Here was a man enjoying the best of both worlds. He has seemingly managed to get other wives without maKhumalo’s consent or advice, which is polygamous according to the lessons of the day. He has built them all their own little houses in his Inkandla homestead, which is practised in isiThembu. Then I wondered if he’d pass the Muslim bar of being just if he were put to the test.

In the end, Ntshangase said the way forward was for women to stand together in solidarity and help equip each other, and they can only do so by having more regular discussions on issues affecting women.

It was time to go. I left my sangoma behind and tried to find my way back to the office. I followed the first Johannesburg sign I saw, playing out the day’s events in my head. I was mesmerised by the beauty of my nation, concerned about the status of women in relationships and hoped that women around the country would lend one another a hand.

When I saw the Joe Slovo offramp, I realised what had happened. It was just another day in Mzansi.

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