South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, Unzipped

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

Zuma with Sizakele Khumalo, one of his wives (AFP)
Zuma with Sizakele Khumalo, one of his wives (AFP)

In May 2006, when Judge Willem van der Merwe acquitted Zuma of the rape of a friend’s adult daughter, he levied this criticism, which goes to the question of Zuma’s judgment: “The accused should not have had sexual intercourse with a person so many years younger than himself and furthermore being the child of an old comrade … ”

Circumspection has to govern the behavior of those who seek to hold office as symbols of their nation. Many African cultures, in their rite-of-passage rituals, teach the importance of this principle in defining propriety. The rules may give you license to behave in a certain way, but conditions may dictate that you should do differently. This is the kind of sacrifice that leadership demands — one that requires you to forgo the luxury of indulging your every whim and instead training your lifestyle to depict the goals you are aiming to achieve for your country.

Zuma’s supporters say the painting is disrespectful of the office of president — but surely the question is whether his own behavior has respected the office he holds. 

A man of 70 still marrying and producing children — the latest count of 21 children is unconfirmed because the president’s office refuses to release an official figure — means that at 90 he will still be faced with school and college fees for a score of children. Zuma has been married six times. In all, he has four current wives, a fiancĂ©e and a baby mama.

Who plans a family like this in this day and age? What principle of parenting sanctions the burdening of children with the responsibilities of the father? Or is the implication that once you are an African president, money will never again be your problem?

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?