A political question, not a cultural one

Saying polygamy is part of his Zulu culture is a dangerous line of reasoning for President Jacob Zuma, according to anthropologist Rehana Vally.

The focus should instead be on trying to understand what polygamy means for both males and females who practise it in a contemporary context.

“We don’t want to fall into the trap of looking at polygamy as a specific cultural practice, as something practised by men in a particular culture or religion. Because if we do that, we begin to fix it as being part of that culture or religion and we don’t see how it has been influenced by time — how it’s changed in terms of how people perceive it, rail against it,” said Vally, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pretoria.

“While some may continue to support and practise polygamy out of religious or cultural conviction, others may do it for reasons that are totally different.”

It should be a political question in modern South Africa instead of a cultural one, she said. “The question we would like answered is how can a modern president of a country that produced statesmen like Luthuli, Mandela or Tutu practise polygamy? Is this not an archaic and sexist practice that has no place in a modern world?”

The answer, she said, is complex. “We should try to refrain from locating it in a tradition-modern paradigm. In theory, every male that is part of a culture or religion that practises polygamy has the right to take more than one wife. In practice, polygamy is about sex and companionship and, more and more, about status and money. Men who have the economic means to maintain more than one wife and many children can do so. In this context, polygamy becomes an indicator of economic wellbeing. It can enhance the social status of the man that can afford it.”

Why women agree?
Vally said women could also have varying reasons for agreeing to be part of a polygamous marriage.

“Are women who agree to become the second or sixth wife of a man traditional, oppressed, or victims of their environment? This might be the case in some instances, but it doesn’t explain why a 30-year-old professional woman would agree to marry a man twice her age and be his second wife. [She] is entering a polygamous union for other reasons. The man could offer economic security, enhanced sociopolitical status, or maybe even freedom from an oppressive traditional family setup.”

Instances of polygamy in the 21st century have been justified as a way out of extramarital liaisons, she added. “Zuma has often argued that he does not ‘hide’ polygamy. A polygamous relationship, they would argue, is much more respectable than adultery. The question is not whether we agree with this, but rather how it helps us to understand the changing dynamics of polygamous practices in the 21st century. The roles and social perceptions of women have changed over the last 100 years.”

Zuma’s impending marriage to Gloria Bongi Ngema may not be his last. According to Gugu Mkhize, a lecturer in isiZulu studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Zulu men can marry as many women as they like. “There are no rules pertaining to polygamy. A man can get as many wives as he like, depending on whether he will be able to maintain them. There is no roster about the visits and any other things. The man will support the household as the head, or the wives can add by working or bringing resources.”

Mkhize added that “anyone can enter into polygamous marriage. There are no restrictions because one is forming a family extending the name of forefathers, but that individual must work hard to support the family.”

But Zuma’s reason might go beyond continuing the family line, said Vally. “The idea of Zuma taking on another wife divides the country into supporters and critics going to battle over women’s rights. Zuma’s sixth marriage may just be a political tactic to harness support. Zuma’s polygamy goes down well with supporters of traditional lifestyles. In the context where many wives means more power, is Zuma maybe not using his sixth marriage as a political tactic?”

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