It cannot be disputed that South Africa's President Jacob Zuma is a survivor. Like the proverbial cat he always lands on his feet, however you throw him. After being fired as deputy president of the country for his alleged involvement in a weapon's bribery scandal, he got himself elected as the president of the ruling ANC party, ousting the then president Thabo Mbeki, the man who originally fired him. This secured him the position of president of South Africa in the last general election, not before he made sure that all remaining weapon's scandal charges against him were thrown out of court.
In the run-up to all of this he warded off rape charges by a HIV-positive woman and got out of it by only apologising for having unprotected sex with her. Another apology for his statement that gays should be beaten up got him off the hook once again.
His latest transgression, fathering a baby with a mistress while being married to three women, is yet another test for his surval instincts. Zuma apologised once again, as his pattern of behaviour would predict, but did he underestimate the power of sex this time?
The news that he fathered his 20th child out of wedlock with a friend's daughter was greeted with shock and revulsion all over the country. Since South Africa's Sunday Times broke the news on January 31, Zuma has made the headlines in just about every national and regional newspaper, television and radio station, while message boards and blogs came alive with commentary. While editorial columns mostly cautioned the president to act with respect and dignity, cartoonists, columnists and political opponents climbed in, depicting him either as a reckless philanderer, a gigolo or a sugar daddy, and a man who does not practice what he preaches.
Speaking to Gulf News, leading South African women's rights advocates were equally dismayed by their president's behaviour. Says Sally Schackleton, executive director of Women'sNet: "We as women's rights advocates feel terribly disappointed and betrayed by our president's actions and his comments". Wendy Isaack, manager of the legal department of People Opposing Women Abuse (Powa), was also highly critical of her president. "His pattern of behaviour not only undermines women's rights but also takes us many years back in our struggle for equality," she said.
The president's 20th child, named Thandekile Matina Zuma, was fathered with 39-year-old Sonono Khoza, the daughter of his long-time friend and prominent football boss Irvin Khoza. Public outrage was initially aimed at the fact that he had an illegitimate child with Sonono while already married to three women. Polygamy is a practice allowed in South Africa but frowned on by many.
Things, however, soon gathered momentum, with commentators pointing out that the president's actions send out mixed messages by contradicting the government's policy advocating safe sex (by using condoms) to stem the rate at which HIV/Aids is spreading in the country, the highest in the world. The fact that Zuma apologised after his acquittal in a rape trail in 2006, admitting that he "erred" in having unprotected sex with a HIV-positive person, now seems a lesson lost on him.
Initially the ANC, South Africa's ruling party, which put Zuma in power, was on the defensive. Presidency spokesman Vincent Magwenya claimed that the president has a right to privacy as enshrined in the Constitution. The ANC's youth leader, Julius Malema, took a similar line, and refused to comment on the accusations, telling journalists that they should be ashamed to ask such questions, "especially when [they concern] an elderly person". When questioned by The Sowetan, Sonono refused to admit the existence of the baby.
All of this soon changed when Zuma's office issued an official statement admitting that he had a relationship and a baby with Sonono Khoza. He confirmed that the formal acknowledgement of paternity and responsibility, including damage payments (inhlawulo), had been made. In the same statement, Zuma also lashed out at the media for "making money out of the matter". He added that they were in essence "questioning the right of the child to exist and, fundamentally, her right to life".
Zuma has altogether been married five times. He is currently married to Sizakele Khumalo (1973), Nompumelelo Ntuli (2008) and Tobeka Madiba-Zuma (2010). He divorced Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 1998 and in 2000 his third wife, Kate Mantsho Zuma, whom he had five children with, committed suicide.
His polygamy once again came into the spotlight at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Although his response to a question about whether he loved all of his wives equally drew howls of laughter from a mainly male audience, others were less than amused. An editorial in Die Burger referred to this incident as an embarrassment for the country.
Women's rights groups are generally unified in their views on polygamy. It is seen as an oppressive and discriminatory practice against women, which normally only flourishes in societies in which women have no power. As Isaack from Powa blatantly puts it: "As a black Zulu feminist I have a problem with our president using culture and tradition to justify his practices. In many African cultures people also find this [polygamy] a problem".
Zuma has issued a formal apology in which he said: "I deeply regret the pain that I have caused to my family, the African National Congress, the [tripartite] alliance and South Africans in general." ANC spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi welcomed the statement, adding: "In his response the president has shown integrity and honesty, thereby taking the country and its citizenry into his confidence."
But is this one apology too many? During 2006, Zuma also had to apologise for saying, "When I was growing up an ungqingili [homosexual] would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out". In a lead article for the Sunday Independent, political analyst Professor Adam Habib pointed out that "when you apologise one too many times the people can't take you seriously".
A statement on the website of the Democratic Alliance (the main opposition party) sums up the situation as follows: "If there is anything positive about this episode, it is that South Africa is getting to know the real Jacob Zuma, beyond the charm. The honeymoon, (in the figurative sense at least), is over".
After this debacle one wonders how much more the ANC will tolerate. Having got rid of their lame duck (The Economist) president Thabo Mbeki, they are now stuck with a PR nightmare (Cape Argus). Will Zuma survive his latest transgression? And if he does, what will happen should he falter yet again? Only time will tell.
- Anthony Penderis is a former Dubai journalist now living in South Africa.