Saturday, April 16, 2011

Polygamy, a President and a Crisis of Sexual Relations

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South African President Jacob Zuma

I like South African President Jacob Zuma far better than his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. At least Zuma doesn’t question the basic link between HIV and AIDS and he seems to show some rhetorical interest in addressing the massive poverty and inequality that plagues South Africa. I’m definitely not trying to deal with South African politics here; in my mind the public life of Zuma and his four wives brings to light a more fundamental issue about the nature of polygamy and its impact on Africa and the Diaspora. Polygamy is intriguingly real and very complicated in Africa, and perhaps Zuma's dilemma raises important questions about the nature of certain polygamous behaviors and their implications, even for African Americans.


Polygamy, a President and a Crisis of Sexual Relations


One of the most bizarre stories to unfold in 2010 was virtually unknown in America and has barely been noticed by the Western media in general. South African president Jacob Zuma – who is married to four women – created plenty of controversy in his country when it was discovered that he fathered a “love child” outside the circle of his official wives. In the Motherland – where polygamy is openly practiced as a part of traditional African culture – the love child infidelity might not be considered unusual. However, the woman's father, wealthy businessman and soccer entrepreneur Irvin Khoza was a family friend and was said to be livid when he heard the news. The friendship has apparently never quite recovered from this betrayal, and the act seemed especially egregious considering that the 67 year old Zuma had just barely escaped conviction after being put on trial for allegedly raping another young female “family friend.” The rape trial – which occurred in the period leading up to Zuma’s presidential inauguration – cast more aspersions on Zuma’s character when Zuma acknowledged that he knew the girl was HIV-positive and had unprotected sex with her anyway. Zuma told the court that he took a shower after the act, believing that it would keep him from contracting the HIV virus, forever sealing his image as a complete fool in the eyes of many South Africans.

Of course, to an American or a European accustomed to Western style democratic elections and intense public scrutiny, the Zuma saga would seem unfathomable. Even with the common acceptance of the diverse cultural and sociological influences that meld into modern South African society, many South Africans themselves – regardless of racial or ethnic background – find Zuma’s presidency somewhat surreal. Beyond his sexual dalliances – in a country that has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, where nearly 1 in every 5 people are HIV positive – Zuma brought even more personal baggage to the presidency. Zuma’s financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of having a “generally corrupt” relationship with Zuma, paying for Zuma’s residences and extravagant lifestyle in exchange for being awarded large government contracts and preferential treatment for his business interests. While Shaik was sentenced to 15 years, Zuma was charged separately and claimed that he looked forward to having his day in court to vindicate his name. But Zuma evaded a trial when a lower court ruled that his predecessor and political foe, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, tried to influence the prosecution of Zuma for his own purposes.
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In a country where the vast majority of the population is African and poor, Zuma has a populist appeal as a leader who has risen to presidential power from humble beginnings in rural Zululand. Zuma has definitely demonstrated skill as a coalition builder and diplomat working on some of the most challenging issues in Africa, including the regional conflict in the Congo, which engulfed 7 nations and led to 6 million deaths and unspeakable atrocities. But Zuma’s rise as a politician is complicated by the fact that his personal actions inevitably lead to serious questions about his judgment and intelligence, regardless of the fact that he managed to secure the highest office in South Africa.

Outside of South Africa, the extraordinary dynamics and questions surrounding Zuma’s presidency are rarely discussed, After all, they are not mentioned AC 360 or Larry King Live, and hence for insular Americans, the news barely raises an eyebrow, especially considering the obscurities of South Africa itself. But inside South Africa polygamy is known and practiced – in overt and covert ways – and is discussed and debated in various public forums, in talk radio and other media, especially among Black and African populations. I can remember a particularly fascinating radio show, where one of the female callers spoke emphatically about wanting to be the second wife, because the second wife has the benefits of the first wife without many of the same constraints. She argued that the second wife has more freedom, has to do less work and has to put up with less irritation from the husband’s idiosyncrasies. The telephone dialogue was sincere, animated and fascinating, and I could not believe my ears that a woman was actually saying that she preferred to be a “second” wife! But then again, this is perhaps why some women in the United States or in other Western societies might enjoy having an affair with a married man; they might like the companionship and sex, yet still maintaining a certain distance, freedom and independence.

At a party in Johannesburg, I was once approached by a very beautiful and intelligent South African woman who had earned her Master’s Degree in the States. This sophisticated, professional sister told me that even with her experience in the America, she believed very strongly that there were many things about African traditional culture that were superior to Western society. And this included the idea that a man should have his freedom to be with several women. “There should be one rooster and many hens,” she said.

Another woman I knew told me flat out that she did not believe in traditional monogamy. She thought that polygamy, the way it was practiced by her ethnic group, Zulus, was more functional, if the women knew each other and had an understanding about their relationship with the same man. When I talked about this with an African American friend of mine who had lived in Southern Africa for many years, he just grinned and said, “Yea, those Zulu women – they sure know how to share a man!” And when I broached the subject with a Sotho friend of mine he told me of a traditional Sotho saying that “A man is an axe and he must be shared.”

There are many aspects of African traditional culture that are profound and offer a much-needed balance and wisdom to dominant Western culture. A sense of community, unity and interrelatedness, respect for elders, sharing, gentleness, harmony and peace are African values that at times seem wholly absent from European cultures. African cultures have never demonstrated the aggressiveness and acquisitiveness of Europeans and some people might make the argument that these very qualities allowed Europeans to colonize the parts of Africa where they had significant contact. The differences are palpable, and perhaps hard to fathom without some direct experience in such divergent cultures. Many people who have traveled to or lived in Africa – regardless of their racial background – speak of the love, kindness and humanity of Africa, the consideration children show for elders, and how people treat each other as if they were all part of one family. It is hard to doubt that we would have a more balanced global society if America, Europe and the Western world could manifest some of these positive expressions of African culture.

The Jacob Zuma saga may be an extreme reflection of the need to have a broader dialogue about polygamy and Black relationship patterns within Africa and among African people in the Diaspora. HIV/AIDS is decimating Black populations globally, and one has to wonder about what part monogamy, fidelity or the acceptance of multiple partners plays in the overall picture of what is happening to African people and their future. Please don’t misunderstand me – I like Jacob Zuma, his leadership style and many of the initiatives and policies he is trying to implement. Zuma has the unenviable task of trying to do something about the gross inequities in his nation, appeasing White elites and the business class to attract global trade and investment. In the meantime South Africa faces widespread poverty, not to mention a massive influx of immigrants and refugees from many countries and regions throughout Africa. But regardless of what I think about Zuma’s domestic and foreign policies, my mind keeps wandering back to his personal escapades and the effect they have had on his public image.

On surface appearances, I must admit – polygamy has a certain appeal to me, as a Black male. Why wouldn’t I want to have several wives/girlfriends/lovers, if each of the women was willing to accept my relationship with the others? Maybe the reason why so many marriages fail is because it isn’t natural for a man to just have one partner, and if more people practiced polygamy or an “open marriage” then perhaps that would stem the divorce rate. As someone who has tremendous respect for African traditional culture, it seems reasonable to question some of my own assumptions and societal conditioning about different kinds of relationships, and try to see things from a non-ethnocentric perspective.

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Oddly enough, I a neighbor of mine in Denver was from Cameroun, and he married a woman from Wyoming and immigrated to the United States. He explained to me that his father was a chief, and had four wives and 36 children. Before I knew him well I would hear him talking on his cell phone, waving his arms emphatically while talking to his family in Cameroun; it seemed his conversations had a tone of anger and frustration. He later told me that his father had been ill and passed away; he was very sad, and he felt bad that he was not able to do more for his father in his final days. But he also was disenchanted with the internecine conflict between his father’s wives, as they vehemently fought over land and property as he was dying. I never had the chance to ask him in more detail about his personal feelings about polygamy and what it was like growing up in his father’s home; but he was clearly upset by the conflicts between his father's wives.

With regard to African Americans, I can’t help wondering to what degree polygamy or infidelity may be part of deep cultural conditioning that stems from African culture or our more recent cultural history relating to the strain of slavery on the Black family. I like asking this as a rhetorical question, because there are quite a few brothers and sisters who are sharing partners. But in the broader picture of Africa – and perhaps among African Americans – the problems of HIV/AIDS, sexual promiscuity and multiple partners should be considered in the context of polygamy. While some aspects of polygamy are very much a part of African tradition, it could be something that needs more evaluation and dialogue regarding its social impact and the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS.

I certainly don’t have an issue with Jacob Zuma having four wives (although I’m sure some Black women and feminists would). It seems to me that a man who has four wives in a socially-sanctioned polygamous arrangement would have every satisfaction of his whims and fantasies taken care of. Why would Jacob Zuma need to have sex with women outside of his four wives? Perhaps polygamy simply does not offer a solution to a dilemma between the sexes, but simply provides a superficial veneer that encourages more imbalanced and dysfunctional sexual relations. It may also be that polygamy, in whatever form we label or describe it, is one of the patterns that is ultimately harming Africans and African Americans in the new millennium.

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