Presidential soap opera and Soccer 2010: more than just a game!

Date: June 13, 2010
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Johannesburg June 9: Just as the world starts to descend on South Africa for the Soccer World Cup official kick off on 11 June, the office of the president has yet again been turned into a national soap opera. This time, to quote a headline in the Star newspaper, the “cheat” has been “cheated.”

President Jacob Zuma (who has three wives, a fiancé and at least twenty children) admitted to having sex with an HIV positive woman half his age in the rape trial prior to his inauguration in May 2009. In February this year he also admitted that he had fathered a child out of wedlock with Sonono Khoza, daughter of Orland Pirates boss and soccer baron Irvin Khoza.

Now the tables have turned. His second wife, Nompulelo Ntuli, who is openly at odds with his third wife, Thobeka Madiba, is accused of being made pregnant by a bodyguard who committed suicide in December. As Zuma arrived back from India with Ntuli and should have been getting into gear to host the soccer extravaganza, he was instead off to a family indaba (consultation) amid the now familiar blaming of the media for delving into his private affairs.

While this might make for titillating (if embarrassing) headlines, what has become apparent through every one of the Zuma sex sagas is that until we address the core issues, they will not go away, and they will surface at the least convenient moments, with damaging consequences for our image and the march to equality.

Long before Zuma became president, and again after the Khoza incident, Gender Links published articles in its Opinion and Commentary Service questioning whether polygamy and promiscuity (allowed for men but not for women) are congruous with a Constitutional state that enshrines gender equality. These articles further posited that leaders in any society should embody the values of the Constitution and that their attitudes to women should be a litmus test of suitability for leadership.

We were met with a barrage of criticism, ranging from the social conservatives who argue that polygamy is not banned under the Constitution (it was a sore point in the negotiations, and remains a grey area that has not been put to the test) to the post feminists who say that playboy presidents are the bomb. The liberals weighed in with arguments about tolerance for diverse life styles. None of these responses addressed the central issue of equality, the cornerstone of the Constitution.

Those who claim that the latest incident, in which Zuma has apparently had a taste of his own indiscretions, is a victory for equality miss the point that the cards are still heavily stacked against women, including in media coverage.

Thus in the Star headline about the cheat being cheated, the sub-heading is about how Zuma had two affairs (not about how he committed adultery twice) while that relating to Ntuli is about how she is accused of adultery. Bill boards across the nation herald how Ntuli has brought shame to the Zuma household. While the Khoza incident eventually led to Zuma apologising to the nation for dragging the good office of the president into sleazy affairs, there was never any suggestion that he had shamed his wives or family.

Ntuli is said to have been fined a goat for “bad behaviour” (there are conflicting accounts as to what this included) while Zuma paid “damages” to the Khoza family for what he did to their daughter. Notice that while she is “damaged” he is still the macho man who continues to behave as he pleases including being the face of a progressive nation that trumpets gender equality across the globe.

This week’s Sunday Independent quotes an eminent Zulu cultural expert, Jabulani Maphalala as saying that women in polygamous marriages “have no right” to have extra marital affairs, unlike their husbands who can “negotiate” such moves. He adds that “In terms of norms, a man is a symbol of authority…It is unheard of for a woman to do as her husband does. There are unprintable words for that kind of behaviour.”

How can such arguments possibly square with Constitutional provisions for equality? How does having a president who clearly subscribes to such views affect the march to a more equal society? Are we in fact moving backwards?

As Soccer 2010 kicks off, these questions are pertinent for several reasons. Echoing a view across the globe, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) adverts have announced that Soccer 2010 “is more than just a game.” It is about soccer coming to Africa for the first time; about the triumph of the disadvantaged; and in South Africa about the miracle nation that has arisen from the ashes of apartheid to take its place among modern and progressive states. Among run up stories prominently featured on the BBC is one about a local lesbian soccer team that has been fighting off the pain of stigma and “corrective rape” by taking to the soccer pitch, albeit with little funding and publicity.

It would be sad if, from a gender perspective, media coverage of this mega event in our own media amounted to little more than the now frequent references to eye candy for women as hunky soccer stars arrive; rich pickings for “happy hookers” (sex workers) who will enjoy a brief reprieve from the authorities; and of course the new addition to the titillating mix: the presidential sex scandal stories.

It’s time to ask the bigger questions about power relations between women and men in our society. Why, for example, is Zuma is not held to the same standards of accountability as his wives and of the Constitution? Why are women relegated to admiring observers and or sex service providers rather than having the same range of economic choices as men? Why does women’s soccer fail to get the same drive and recognition as men’s soccer? Why can’t women opt to love other women without fear for their lives if they so choose? What are the qualities of “real men” and can they stand up on the soccer pitch to be counted?

Asking these questions and prompting such debates amid the mounds of coverage in the electrifying month ahead would help to ensure that Soccer 2010 is indeed more than just a game: that among the many goals scored will be one for gender equality.

Colleen Lowe Morna is Executive Director of Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service. For more information on the Score a Goal for Gender Equality campaign please go to

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