South Africa's Jacob Zuma, Unzipped

Critics say an artist disrespected Zuma's presidency. But doesn't he do the same with his behavior?

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Not long ago I listened to a senior couple, monogamous as far as I know -- in a union that was clearly strong, long-lasting and full of the love that comes from deep understanding of each other -- attempt to define the why and wherefores of this famous African tradition. The husband was seeking to explain that polygamy as practiced today and as shown by the example of President Zuma was not being followed as the ancients had intended. In the proper practice, a man was required to get permission from his wife or wives before adding another.

My immediate thought was, on what planet? The look his wife gave him, accompanied by a wagging finger, said it all.

It is settled knowledge that polygamy was part of an agrarian society, based on a subsistence economy, fitted into a system where a family's wealth depended on its ability to plant and harvest as many plots of land as possible. That pattern of wealth accumulation has long since disappeared, so where are we with this notion that one man and many wives serves some higher purpose or works as an efficient model for society? Where can one find a codified set of rules governing the practice and institution of polygamy, which satisfies the men and women involved in it?

When it comes to the president of a country, this is the question: Is it really fair to expect the treasury to pay for this ever-increasing family? Where does it stop? Should there not be some kind of limit? What message does it send to the populace, especially from a party that trumpets its concern for the poor and unemployed? Just marry as many as you like, no matter your income; we have welfare?

It is this open-ended situation, this  "state of unzippedness," that is especially galling. There is always, it seems, a fiancée in waiting, with a child in tow. How on earth does he find the time?

It is untidy and irregular, looks ill-disciplined and provides an easy metaphor for the ANC's critics -- especially now, when the topics dominating the headlines in South Africa are corruption, poor service delivery, political corruption and embezzlement accompanied by even more poor service delivery.

This is a beautiful country of such talent and potential. Its leaders and its achievements are powerful symbols for the rest of the world and the African continent especially. Its president should do better.

Amma Ogan is a Johannesburg-based journalist.

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