April 26, 2010

Altared State: Who’s the First Lady When the President’s a Polygamist? South Africa’s New Leader Has Two Spouses And a Fiancée, but Only One Can Reign

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NKANDLA, South Africa — Now that 67-year-old Jacob Zuma is about to become president, the question is: Who will be First Lady? And Second Lady? And will there be a Third Lady?

[Jacob Zuma]Jacob Zuma

Mr. Zuma, who led the African National Congress party to an overwhelming victory in last week’s elections, is a onetime goatherd who enthusiastically embraces his Zulu roots. That means, for the first time, an avowed polygamist will be occupying the Cape Dutch-style presidential palace in Pretoria. Mr. Zuma has been married four times and currently has two wives and one fiancée waiting in the wings.

It’s “Big Love,” South African style.

Competing for the top role will be first wife Sizakele Khumalo, about 68, whom he married in 1975 after his release from the apartheid regime’s notorious Robben Island prison. She could be found one recent morning picking dried maize in a scraggly field here in Mr. Zuma’s childhood village, helped out by local women and a bodyguard.

Also in the running is Nompumelelo Ntuli, more than 30 years his junior, whom he wed at a raucous traditional festivity last year that featured him dancing in a loincloth and leopard-skin robe. And then there’s Thobeka Mabhija, a Durban socialite reported to be in her thirties. Earlier this year, local press reported that Mr. Zuma paid lobolo — an offering of cattle or the cash equivalent — to her family, making her his bride-to-be. Not that this guarantees a wedding: Mr. Zuma reportedly paid lobolo in 2002 for a princess from the royal family of Swaziland, but she still hasn’t sealed the deal.

The marital connections extend beyond the presidential palace. Ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the mother of four of his children, is foreign affairs minister. Political watchers believe she’ll retain a role in the Zuma administration, perhaps heading the Home Affairs Ministry. Her spokesman calls that speculation and wouldn’t comment on the couple’s divorce.

Independent NewspapersJacob Zuma’s first wife, Sizakele Khumalo, harvesting dried maize as her bodyguard looks on.

Who's First Lady  When the President's a Polygamist?

Who's First Lady When the President's a Polygamist?

The ANC has routinely declined to comment on Mr. Zuma’s personal life, and spokesmen didn’t respond to messages. Mr. Zuma has defended polygamy, which is legal here. “There are plenty of politicians who have mistresses and children that they hide so as to pretend they’re monogamous,” he once said in a TV interview. “I prefer to be open. I love my wives and I’m proud of my children.”

There’s plenty of cultural precedent. Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini has six wives, and the prior ruler of Swaziland is said to have taken 70. Both tribes feature a reed-dance festival each year in which young maidens parade topless, many of them hoping to catch the royal wandering eye.

Mr. Zuma’s embrace of Zulu traditions helped cement his popularity, particularly in the countryside. Badly treated under British and apartheid rule, and somewhat marginalized afterward, Zulus are South Africa’s largest ethnic group. Most are jubilant to see one of their own assume the highest office.

But some social activists are aghast, saying Mr. Zuma is setting a terrible example in a country where women have yet to enjoy the full fruits of freedom. Colleen Lowe Morna, executive director of Gender Links, which promotes equality of the sexes, calls polygamy “unconstitutional” because men are allowed to have more than one wife but women aren’t allowed more than one husband. And she worries that more men will embrace the practice. “It goes with the flaunting of wealth and power,” she says.

Lavish Hut

That’s not the way the first Mrs. Zuma sees it. Done with field chores for the morning, she graciously received a trio of visiting journalists in the living room of her lavishly appointed hut. While bearing some resemblance to traditional dwellings, with a thatched roof and a cattle pen out front, her home also is equipped with a flat-screen TV and a microwave oven. One chair, draped in a leopard skin, is off-limits to visitors. By tradition, only the man of the house, Mr. Zuma, sits there.

Independent NewspapersMr. Zuma and his latest bride, Nompumelelo Ntuli, dance for the crowds during their wedding in January 2008.



Speaking Zulu, Mrs. Zuma, who goes by the name Sizakele Khumalo, described how her husband-to-be — as an impoverished boy who lived over the next hill — had pursued her. “He was easy on the eyes,” she said, but she put him off until he was 20. Before they could marry, though, he was swept up by security forces and thrown into prison with future president Nelson Mandela. Though he had only a few years of schooling, he used to write her letters — first in Zulu, then in English, which he mastered in prison. “It was difficult to be apart, but we coped,” she said.

After his release, they delayed some more, finally tying the knot in 1975. The price: 11 cows.

Other wives came later, including the future foreign minister, now divorced, and another wife who committed suicide, leaving behind a scathing note describing her time with Mr. Zuma as “24 years of hell.” All told, says the first Mrs. Zuma, her husband has fathered 19 children that she’s aware of, though none with her.

Equal Treatment

The first Mrs. Zuma stuck it out, and defends the institution of polygamous marriage. “It’s a Zulu custom and if there’s respect between the husband and the wives and among the wives themselves, and if he’s able to treat us equally, then it’s not hard,” she said.

Equal treatment may not be possible now that the man of the house is South Africa’s next president. Though there’s an official residence in Pretoria, the administrative seat, as well as in Cape Town, where the legislature meets, only one First Lady is supposed to enjoy the official title and the protocol that goes with it.

Asked who will get top honors, Szakele Khumalo laughed mischievously and raised her finger, indicating she thinks she has the inside track. It’s true that in the presidential compound here her hut is bigger than that of wife No. 2. But then she demurred and said the matter hasn’t been decided yet. In any event, she acknowledged, there would be a downside to moving into the South African equivalent of the White House.

“I’d like it in the town, but this is where I’ve been all my life,” she said. “And if I go I will miss it.”

Write to Michael Allen at


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