Less than a week after exhorting South Africans to carry forward the legacy of Mandela and his belief and practice of gender equality, newspapers reported that President Zuma told of being impressed with how VhaVenda women show respect, saying were he not married to his four wives he would take a woman from the area.
Bongani Hans reports that Zuma said:
“When I was in Venda recently I was so impressed to see how people there express respect for other people. A woman would clap her hands and even lie down to show respect. I was so impressed. If I was not already married to my wives I would go to Venda to look for a woman.”
While they are not required to lie face down, traditionalist VhaVenda men also clap their hands to express respect.
While on the face of it he spoke of respect and self-respect, all admirable values, courting and marriage were central themes of Zuma’s address at the event where he made the remarks. Marriage and the undesirability of singledom is a set of topics close to the President’s heart.
Currently married to four women and has paid lobola to Sebentile Dlamini, Zuma has been married a total of six times.
Getrude Sizakele Khumalo is wife number 1. They met in 1959 and married in 1973 when he came out of apartheid’s prison. The second wife is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairperson of the African Union Commission and former South African minister of Home Affairs. They divorced in 1998. Wife number 3 was Kate Mantsho. She committed suicide in 2000. He married Nompumelelo Ntuli, wife no.4, in 2008; Thobeka Mabida in 2010; and Bongekile Gloria Ngema in 2012.
Zuma has about 20 known children with his wives and out-of wedlock.
The news report also said that Zuma urged young women and men to exercise self-respect and respect for others. He encouraged young men “to keep themselves looking clean and smart so that they would look attractive to women” rather than spending “their time drinking alcohol instead of courting women.”
“As a young man you should not always be thirsty. When are you getting time to focus on women? It is a man’s responsibility to find a woman so that he can get married and build a home. There is no proper home for a single man. Wake up in the morning, take a bath, dress nicely and go out on the street. Even if you are not going to court a woman, woman must see a gentlemen in you.”
I know that profeminist, gay, transgender, queer and radical men may take umbrage with the conservative idea of gentlemanliness, taking baths and dressing nicely, and that marriage is not the be all and end all of all life. What if you prefer having sex with other men and staying single in your own house, some will ask? What if you don’t have running water where you live and don’t have a job to feed yourself, let alone buy smart clothes? But is it really wrong of the President to encourage some good old hygienic habits and self-respecting courtly behaviour even if you have nothing to do with your life except hang out at the street corner?
And I bet women who do not like showing respect to men by lying down in the dirt will have problems with the President’s remarks. However, to all those independent women, lesbians, transgender individuals and other queers, feminists, and other women who prefer unshaven armpits, no or little pubic hair, cleaning their own houses instead of domestic workers, what’s really wrong with a woman submitting to her man? What’s wrong with women looking younger, sexier, straighten their hair, getting Brazilians and Hollywoods, and obeying men and making their husbands happy?
It may be true that Zuma, contrary to how he has been analysed as a conservative, polygamous Zulu culturalist who has cunning political instincts, is actually channeling elements of a world-wide patriarchal neoliberal capitalist heterosexist culture that does respect unruly women who stand up to oppressive norms, or feminine males, singletons, bad dressers, dirty bodies, anarchists, and other hierarchy-challenging subjects. I realise that this might not be the best way to take forward the cause of gender and sexual equality. I get all that.
What puzzles me Zuma’s innocent comment about Venda wives is how he came to talk about marrying women who prostrate themselves to show respect at an event organised by the South African Social Security Agency, Provincial Government’s Treasury Department, and uMgungundlovu District Municipality? How did he get onto that subject? Furthermore, I would be interested in knowing what precisely is stopping Zuma from taking wife number 7 from among the VhaVenda?