Sunday, September 27, 2009


A rather large cultural difference in SA is that polygamy is legal - it's considered to be a part of traditional African culture. President Jacob Zuma famously has three wives, which gave rise to considerable speculation about how he'd deal with the "first lady" issue when elected - he solves this problem neatly, in SA at least, by arranging for them all to appear with him at public events (generating a whole new genre of gossip columnage along the lines of "which wife was best dressed/ had the best seat/ got the most attention/ was most gracious to the hoi polloi?" etc.) Zuma also has an unknown number of children - up to eighteen according to the papers - from at least five different women (he had two other wives, one dead, one divorced).

In the SA Sunday Times today there's an article on a Mr. Milton Mbhele who took the notion a step further by marrying four wives on the same day - there's a nice photo of them in nearly-matching white dresses. Milton met these ladies at various times and has built separate houses for them - and fathered seven children with them (along with another three from other relationships). He frankly admits that having a single mass wedding was partly for economic reasons - it was cheaper than having four separate events (which presumably would have included a lot of the same guests, at least on the groom's side). Mr. Mbhele is a bank manager and can presumably afford to maintain four wives, even if four weddings would have been a stretch. The article mentions that Mbhele paid the traditional bridal price - lebolo - for each of his ladies: ten cows, eight cows, seven cows and seven cows respectively.

Mbhele is quoted as saying that he loves his wives equally and that there's "good competition" among them - "But it is healthy competition. From cleaning the home to respecting me, they are all so well behaved." Only one of the wives is quoted, the new Mrs. Zenele Mbhele, who said of the arrangement "We get along well. We visit each other often." The Sunday Times reports this item with no hint of criticism - in fact, it's only news because the four weddings took place at the same time - but it seems to me that, legal or not, there's something fundamentally very wrong about this whole concept, just because it's so unequal. It's impossible to imagine a female bank manager saying of her four new husbands (who she paid 32 sheep for) that they compete healthily in cleaning their homes and in respecting her - and the four men being perfectly happy with this - and with the bed-time rota. The tradition of polygamy here always seems to mean that men can have multiple wives and not vice-versa - so there's a rather massive sexist double standard built in.

(I should mention that on the same page of the Sunday Times there's an item saying that prisoners in Verne Prison in Dorset, UK, managed to get drunk and start a fight by consuming a hand gel intended to stop the spread of swine flu - the gel happened to contain alcohol - so I suppose every culture has its traditions that are resistant to change....)

No comments: