The Commission for Gender Equality has received a complaint from the Democratic Alliance (DA) about President Jacob Zuma's remarks that it's "not right" for women to be single, and that having children is "extra training for a woman", while the ANC Women's League has come out in his defence.
The DA said Zuma's utterances were sexist and, by implication, unconstitutional.
But the Women's League told the Mail & Guardian the comments were taken "grossly" out of context by the media and commentators. "If you look at the statements made by the president in the context of the interview it seems clear to me that he is talking about his aspirations for his own daughters," said league spokesperson Troy Martens. "Like I'm sure most parents, he wants to see his children happily married and have grandchildren."
Zuma's comments were made during a wide-ranging interview with television personality Dali Tambo in his TV series, People of the South, which returned to SABC3 screens on Sunday evening after a decade-long hiatus.
Speaking about his daughter Duduzile's marriage to Lonwabo Sambudla, Zuma said he was happy for her.
"I was also happy because I wouldn't want to stay with daughters who are not getting married, because that in itself is a problem in society. I know that people today think being single is nice. It's actually not right. That's a distortion.
"You've got to have kids. Kids are important to a woman because they actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother," Zuma said.
"The commission is investigating the complaint and will allow due processes to run its course," the commission said.
Lisa Vetten, one of the country's foremost researchers and analysts on gender and violence, took issue with the implications of Zuma's sentiment that there was something wrong with a woman if she was single.
Speaking to the M&G when the comments were made, she said: "From our experience of counselling women, it increases the likelihood that those women feel pressure to get into relationships and stay in it no matter how abusive, unsatisfying and unfulfilling it may be, because they are well aware of the social stigma attached to those who are single."
But Martens responded: "We also recognise that many women are single rather than being in abusive relationships and as the Women's League we commend these women for their bravery and congratulate them for escaping the clutches of an abusive relationship. It is far more commendable to be single in such instances."
She also emphasised that the league, while recognising the importance of the family unit, felt there was "absolutely nothing wrong" with being a single woman. "Like myself, many women in the ANC are single."
"It's unfortunate that these comments get made during Women's Month," said Gender Links CEO Colleen Lowe Morna. "We should be pushing the envelope in this month but instead it becomes a glorified Mother's Day."
Tambo's interview took him into Zuma's home in Nkandla, where he dined with the president and two of his children: his son Edward and his daughter Duduzile, along with her husband Lonwabo. The five were filmed conversing over their meal about everything from Zuma's fathering methods to the debacle involving The Spear painting, which showed the president with his genitals exposed.
Duduzile told Tambo in the interview that she once wanted to be a successful businesswoman, but that her priorities had shifted now that she was married with children. She was also vehement that she would never allow her husband to take a second wife, after her father told Tambo it would be up to the man, with input from the wife. "No way. Hell no," said Duduzile. "Not that I don't believe in it. My father practises it. I understand it, I accept it, but it's just not my choice."
The latest in a series of gaffes from a man known for his conservative and traditional values, the comment served to show up the contrast between his dedication to some forms of women empowerment, such as employment equity; and his deeply entrenched patriarchal take on a woman's role in the domestic sphere.
Zuma's biographer, journalist Jeremy Gordin, was unsurprised by the sentiment. "For him it seems completely in character. His explanation, if he were to make it, would be that he is in favour of good family values, and he thinks having children is good for family cohesion," said Gordin, who wrote the unauthorised Zuma: A Biography. "He could have said worse," he added.
Zuma is known for his traditional views that are often at odds with South Africa's progressive Constitution—and with more liberal South Africans.
Tambo's interview with the president steered clear of dwelling on such controversies and delved into Zuma in the context of his role as a family man.
Duduzile, in particular, spoke glowingly of her father in an interview that was often poignant. Zuma was revealed to have never raised a hand to his children and often told them he loved them.
But he didn't preach on fatherhood, instead choosing to focus on the role of women as mothers.
"In a society based on equality we would want to see the same comments made about fathers and fatherhood," said Morna. "Would Zuma stand up and say if a man doesn't care for his children he would be any less of a man? I've never heard him talk about the importance of fatherhood."
But the ANC Women's League felt the president's comments about children were also taken out of context. "I'm sure any mother will tell you that having a child is an entirely new education," said Martens.
"But again I believe the president was making that comment in jest talking fondly of his own daughter and his desire for her to have children." – Additional reporting by Sapa.