World’s most famous polygamist snubs safe sex

Date: February 3, 2010
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Twenty kids, five weddings (and more to come?) and a whole lot of polygamous loving going on, marital and extra-marital. Some say it is a private matter, but like it or not, just as with any celebrity, Zuma’s sexual behaviour is not private.

This is even truer with a political figure. The people of a country elect a representative with the hopes he or she will lead them in the direction they want their country to go. Zuma’s sexual life speaks volumes about his commitment to achieving an HIV-free, single-partner, sexual culture. As far as I can see, he is not committed at all.

President Jacob Zuma has multiple wives, and many say that is his culture, but he also has multiple partners. The latest baby’s mother, Sonona Khoza, is daughter of powerful soccer businessman, Irvin Khoza, and is not married to him.

In 2005, Zuma admittedly knowingly had sex with an HIV-positive woman (she opened a case of rape) spawning not children, but the infamous shower above his head in Zapiro cartoons. He’s 67, not exactly in his sexual prime, but like the energizer bunny, this man ain’t stopping.

Zuma had been criticised for his polygamy just last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, prompting him to hit back at accusations that the practice was insulting to women. He said, “People interpret cultures in different ways, some think that their culture is superior to others, that’s a problem we have in the world.”

He went on, “we follow a policy that says you must respect the cultures of others. That’s my culture. It does not take anything from me, from my political beliefs and everything, including the belief on the equality of women.”

However, his latest child brought even more attention to his sex life, some even comparing him to Tiger Woods, and suggesting treatment for sex addiction. Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape and opposition leader of the Democratic Alliance, said that Zuma’s behavior directly contradicts the government’s campaign against multiple sexual partners and the inherent AIDS risk in having unprotected sex.

Zille added in a widely reported e-mail statement that “there are some people who may argue that Jacob Zuma’s sex life is a matter of private morality or culture, but this is not so. His personal behavior has profound public consequences.”

He is obviously not keen on using condoms, despite the fact that condom use is South Africa’s primary strategy to stop the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The fact that he is often in pursuit of women young enough to be his daughters could be associated with the broader South African problem of “sugar daddies.” One of the major contributors to the spread of HIV among young women is a culture that encourages them to have sex with much older men, in pursuit of the benefits of financial security that come with it.

Unfortunately, the older the man, the more likely he is to have had multiple sexual partners, and the more likely he is (especially if he doesn’t use condoms) to have contracted an STI or many STIs. (In his 2006 trial, Zuma testified that he tested HIV-negative.)

In addition, there is a huge power imbalance between old men and younger women, and that power imbalance is further strengthened when the old man is the president. There is nearly a 30-year age gap between him and the mother of his 20th child. His behaviour represents the acceptance of a dangerous sexual culture.

He has multiple concurrent partners, which is, again, a major contributor to the spread of HIV. Any person with limited mathematical ability will tell you that the more people you have unprotected sex with, the more likely you are to contract something or share what you have with many other people. And unlike chocolates, these are things that you should not be sharing.

In the past, critics suggested Zuma was portraying the wrong image through multiple marriages. Local AIDS activists have said that having several partners sent a poor message in a country with the world’s highest HIV caseload. Some South Africans argued that polygamy did not fit well with a modern society. Some questioned how he could keep such a large household on a state salary. What state support do the wives and children receive, in any case?

While the immediate spread of HIV relates to behaviors such as unprotected sexual intercourse, multiple sexual partners and some biological factors such as STIs, the fundamental drivers of this epidemic in South Africa are the more deep-rooted institutional problems of poverty, underdevelopment and the low status of women, including gender-based violence, and cultural practices such as polygamy. Poverty has worsened since Zuma inherited an economic recession; no improvement can be discerned in the other factors thanks to Zuma’s policies.

However, until now, Zuma’s respect for tradition has endeared him to many rural South Africans. Even in the flourishing suburbs, the middle classes have increasingly taken to a president who has so far maintained stable policies and the number of his marriages – a right enshrined in South Africa’s constitution – does not bother them.

Will that change, now? Will ordinary people shake their head at Zuma’s hypocrisy, given that the state tells us to practice safe sex and maintain loyal, stable relationships?

Zuma, whom I label as the world’s most famous polygamist, has said in previous media reports, that instead of hiding his mistresses and illegitimate children like politicians who pretend to be monogamous, he has honoured the women in his life by marrying them. But the ANC’s response to criticism about Zuma was to hide away the hypocrisy factor as well as ignore the danger Zuma presents to HIV-AIDS education.

Now I understand what Zuma meant when he said “2010, pregnant with possibilities.” It is time for Zuma to answer for his actions without his trademark laugh. It is time to be serious about his responsibility as a leader and a role model. If he doesn’t, I’m scared for the type of future South Africa will have.

Oliver Meth is based at the University of KwaZulu Natal Centre for Civil Society. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service


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