JOHANNESBURG – Confirmation that President Jacob Zuma, who has three wives and a fiancee, has fathered a child with yet another woman has prompted jokes in South Africa's media but has also hit a nerve in a country hardest hit by the virus that causes AIDS.
For a president whose political career survived a rape trial, Zuma is expected to emerge relatively unscathed from the disclosure that he is the father of a baby girl born in October. Even so, the political opposition says he is a poor role model in a country where an estimated 5.7 million of South Africa's 50 million people are infected with HIV, more than any other country. And even ordinary South Africans are left wondering.
"All these AIDS campaigns tell us that to have one partner but our president has five," said Phemelo Mmitsinyane, an 18-year-old University of Johannesburg student.
While some South Africans see Zuma's polygamy as outdated, others applaud him for embracing what they see as traditional African values. South African law recognizes such traditional marriages, though fewer young people enter into them because they are seen as expensive and old-fashioned.
But after this latest indiscretion, The Star newspaper lambasted Zuma in an editorial: "His rampant libido has made South Africa a laughing stock of the world and may even harm the country's interest."
Helen Zille, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, said Zuma's polygamy and sex outside marriage undermines the country's fight against HIV/AIDS. Experts say having multiple, concurrent partners heightens the risk of contracting the virus. And the fact that Zuma's mistress got pregnant indicates they may have had unprotected sex.
"Zuma believes he is above the law and social norms. He believes that — by virtue of his position — he can get away with anything," Zille wrote in a weekly newsletter Thursday, a day after Zuma publicly acknowledged he was the baby's father.
The mother is Sonono Khoza, the 39-year-old daughter of a prominent South African soccer official who is helping lead preparations for the World Cup, according to local media reports.
Since the disclosure, Zuma has wound up being lampooned in political cartoons. On Friday, The Star ran a list of Zuma jokes on the front page. One of the jokes said ruling party officials have stopped Zuma from kissing babies "because they might call him 'Daddy."'
For his part, the 67-year-old Zuma said it is "mischievous" to argue he has undermined the battle against AIDS and admonished the South African media for identifying his daughter. The birth of Zuma's 20th child was first reported in Johannesburg's Sunday Times newspaper, which cited unnamed friends of the mother's family.
On Friday, the ruling the African National Congress called Zille's comments about Zuma setting back the fight against HIV/AIDS "at best preposterous or just plain madness."
The president — once ridiculed for saying a shower could prevent AIDS — earned high marks on World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 when he announced expanded treatment for HIV-positive babies and pregnant women, a move that could save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Zuma was acquitted of rape in 2006 after he insisted the unprotected sex he had with the HIV-positive daughter of a family friend was consensual. But he went on to win leadership of the ANC and became president last year after his party swept elections.
Once imprisoned under apartheid, Zuma spent years in exile before surviving corruption and sex scandals and a party power struggle to reach the nation's highest office. Many impoverished black South Africans believe Zuma's personal battles and eventual triumph give him special insight into their own struggles and aspirations.
The latest scandal won't harm Zuma's career, according to Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a joint project of South Africa's Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.
"Politically this will have no impact whatsoever," Friedman said.