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

(The Root) — President Jacob Zuma of South Africa is again in the news for reasons that have to do with his marital history and sexual conduct. But this time the issue is with artist Brett Murray's depiction of Zuma in a satirical portrayal that has him assuming a pose associated with Lenin — with a notable twist. In the painting, Zuma, who turned 70 in April, is depicted looking away in the distance, fully clothed in overcoat, trousers, jacket and tie, but his genitals are fully visible from his open fly. There is something completely at ease about the pose and the figure's unzipped state.

The outcry from the two sides of the controversial portrait issue has been predictable. On one side are those who uphold freedom of expression as enshrined in the country's constitution and support the artist's right to say his mind. These voices say it is about time the South African president's womanizing ways were put in context.

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Raging against this view are those who condemn this infringement on Zuma's dignity and assault on his right to privacy. For the most part, people with this viewpoint come from Zuma's political party, the African National Congress, or ANC, its officials in government and a section of the clergy who paint Murray, a white South African, as a racist. 

The arguments on this side are to be expected: African customs and culture are habitually being condemned by those who think theirs are superior, and once again, this view goes, the old prejudices about depraved African sexual mores are being rehashed by whites who are blinkered by their racism. Polygamy is a revered African tradition. Whites just don't get it. Zuma is simply being true to his culture.

In sharp contrast to his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, Zuma is proudly populist, and very happily traditional in his choice of polygamy as a way of life, and in his political oratory and style. Recently, though, Zuma's political career has been dogged by scandal, including a rape charge of which he was acquitted in 2007, as well as charges of bribery and corruption, from which he narrowly escaped trial because of procedural errors just before he was sworn in as president in 2009. It is easy to see why Zuma's sexually profligate behavior, as some see it, would provoke controversy in a multicultural and racially mixed South Africa. 

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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 fiancée 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.

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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?

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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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