Jacob Zuma’s three first ladies

Marriage can be a very serious businessThe question that has South Africa’s media all of a twitter is: “Who amongst Jacob Zuma’s three wives will be the country’s next first lady?”

It was hoped the inauguration ceremony of South Africa’s first polygamous president this Saturday would be some indication, but it has been reported he will be accompanied by all three women.

Mr Zuma, a Zulu, has married at least five women since 1973 and has 19 children.

The 67-year-old is still married to his first wife Sizakele Khumalo, to Nompumelelo Ntuli, 34, whom he married in 2007, and to his most recent wife Thobeka Mabhija, described by the South African media as a 35-year-old “Durban socialite”.

Another wife, Kate Mantsho Zuma, committed suicide in 2000, and he divorced Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in 1998, but she remains a close political adviser and has served as a minister in government.

Polygamy is still common in rural KwaZulu Natal, where Mr Zuma is from.

According to political analyst Protas Madlala, many Zulus who are Christian have turned away from the practice, but it persists in rural areas because of the low standard of education and enduring poverty there.


Traditionally, the whole family would live in the same compound, with each wife maintaining her own round house, or rondavel.

The first wife is usually expected to have some say in choosing the subsequent wives, to make sure the husband does not choose someone she will quarrel with.

“The man is expected to rotate his nightly visits,” says Mr Madlala.

“I am a Westernised African, with an education, so I wouldn’t go for a polygamous marriage,” Mr Madlala says.

“But rural poverty definitely plays a part in keeping the tradition alive. Parents may depend on the bride prices that are paid, and may ask their children to go into it.”

He says that although polygamy is not as common as it once was, traditions are associated with openness and honesty.

“People who stick to the traditions say that they may have more than one wife, but Christians maintain strings of mistresses, hidden away.”

Sexual politics

By being closely associated with traditional practices, including polygamy, Mr Zuma has managed to create an image of himself as a straight-talking honest man among rural supporters across South Africa’s ethnic lines, Mr Madlala says.

This despite a well-publicised rape trial where Mr Zuma admitted having unprotected sex with a family friend who was HIV positive.

Mr Zuma was acquitted of the charge.

But the hoo-ha did not seem to matter to Zulus, who voted for Mr Zuma in their droves, abandoning the traditional Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.

“Many people I spoke to said they voted for Mr Zuma, not the African National Congress,” Mr Madlala said.

He suspects that support came through amongst rural Xhosas too.

But should sexual politics have an influence over voters’ choices?

Steven Friedman at the University of Johannesburg says not.

“If as a politician you believe it is OK to rape or treat people with violence then that will have an effect on the way you deal with public challenges.”

“But if you think it’s OK to marry five women I don’t think it would.”

Mr Zuma is deeply committed to traditional beliefs, he says.

“But I’m sceptical if the electorate cares much about it.”


So why has there been such a flurry of media articles about who will be the “first wife”?

A lot of the media speculation has been driven by American news values, something that doesn’t really have much to do with South African political culture
Steven Friedman
University of Johannesburg

The ANC has said the matter is a personal one and there is no protocol to dictate who Mr Zuma should choose to be his “first wife”.

It has also been suggested that one of Mr Zuma’s daughters will take on the role.

But Mr Friedman says there is nothing in the constitution about any role for the president’s spouse.

“A lot of the media speculation has been driven by American news values, something that doesn’t really have much to do with South African political culture.”

So does Zulu culture indicate who will get to shake Barack Obama’s hand or take tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace?

Mr Madlala says it is likely that Mr Zuma will not have to choose one woman to be his official companion at state occasions or visits.

The Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithinini kaBhekuzulu frequently takes more than one of his five wives with him on visits, he says.

“It may be that to avoid antagonising some of them he takes them all to state occasions.

“Or he may rotate among them, like the nightly visits.”