Wives of Polygamous South African President Compete to Reign as First Lady

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

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. 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 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 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: 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.

The ANC has routinely declined to comment on Zuma's personal life, and spokesmen didn't respond to messages. Zuma has defended polygamy, which is legal in South Africa. "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.

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 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.

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