Zuma polygamy drama – anti-feminist myths addressed

Much has been said in the media and private conversations on the latest revelations of the South African president’s paternity of a child ‘out of wedlock’.

Myth 1: It is a private matter.
Jacob Zuma is not a private citizen, but the President of the country and his sex and love life have implications for the rest of us. He pledged loyalty to certain principles, and it is the duty and right of the citizens to question his office when he is seen to transgress or jeopardise these same principles.

Beyond the Constitution, principles and other legal issues, however, there is no rule that citizens and institutions of a democracy can only question (or generally speak on) some things and not others. Free speech is one of the bases (and basics) of democracy.

When citizens think the president speaks with forked tongue on gender equality, on HIV/AIDS (risk/prevalence), on consistency, etc., this is not a private matter. When citizens’ taxes pay for an increasingly expensive Presidential family, they have every right to speak their minds on the matter.

Myth 2: Zuma can either have multiple partners and be subjected to criticism OR choose one partner and escape public scrutiny.
This is binary logic – which never gets us anywhere. The point of the matter is not whether in a feminist republic we’d force Zuma to choose one wife or banish him. (We’d probably banish Zuma for many more reasons, least of which his preference for multiple partners. There’d be equitable multiple partner relationships in the Feminist Republic.) The heart of the matter is that Jacob Zuma is a public, elected official and an ADULT, which means that he can do pretty much what he likes – apart from commit a crime, be caught and be convicted in a court of law (all together) – but he has to take responsibility for his choices, deal with the consequences of his actions and be grown up about it. Non-feminists could be forgiven for expressing the sentiment behind the saying ‘just be a man about it’ although not for its formulation.

This feminist wishes the President would stop acting like a helpless child who has no decisions, no choice and no mind of his own. We don’t have to agree on what the best choices are, or on why they are made, but addressing the issues instead of creating never ending smokescreens (culture, privacy, unavailability) would merit more respect.

Myth 3: Zuma’s critics romanticise monogamy, his defenders romanticise polygamy.
Debates on single versus multiple partners are such old hat for most feminists that many of us are at a loss for words when forced to explain why anti-feminist rhetoric insists on equating feminist critique of Zuma with a feminist celebration of monogamy. Are you kidding me?

Feminists have been arguing that monogamous heterosexual families were very often at the heart of patriarchal exploitation of women’s sexual, emotional, economic, pyschological, reproductive and intellectual labour for centuries.

Feminists have also said (again over and over again – across history and continents) such homes/families/households are the battleground when white supremacist heteropatriarchies exert violence – hence the devaluation and legalised separation of African/Amerindian/Native American/Asian families in slavery, colonialism, apartheid, etc.

Feminists have insisted that most women experience rape and other forms of violence from their intimate male partners in officially/formally monogynous contexts (and this has been a basic feminist premise for at least 50 years). Feminists said institutionalised monogynous heterosex is about controlling women, containing women’s sexual desire, and policing women’s reproduction.

African feminists especially have said that most monogynous heterosexual relationships benefit the man (to put it mildly) at the expense of the woman in it, and that multiple partner relationships can be about much more than oppression.

Some feminists say the institution of marriage is inherently patriarchal, so the ‘out of wedlock’ thing is not an issue in and as of itself. It’s the larger context of disregard for the dangers that come with infinite sexual relationships in a time of age AIDS that is the problem.

Again, much creative, experimental, public essay, academic, op-ed writing and other knowledge exists on the interesting ways in which multiple-partner relationships can be affirming and interesting spaces for women. Yes, many feminists also disagree with some of the above, but it’s patriarchally inconvenient to deal with any of the above.

Myth 4: The issue is polygamy’s legality and validity, both of which are under attack.
All the people who are saying ‘it is my culture’ to practice monogamy mean it is their culture for a man to have many women as partners – polygyny. They are also saying that their culture is static and we should all respect it without question, even if and when it speaks for us too. But, as feminists we insist that if it is ours too, then we can question, change, lay claim to it, question how it is being misrepresented. Every single proponent of the ‘culture’ plus ‘ploygamy’ argument that I have read in the SA news, seen or personally debated on radio, television or new media platforms has refused the same courtesy to women with multiple partners, whether these partners be men, women, intersex and/or trans-people, or a combination. So, they’re saying ‘it is my culture to practice polygamy’ but what they mean is ‘it is my culture to enter into polygyny’. And there is nothing specifically African about polygamy – people all over the world choose it.

Myth 5: It’s ‘unfair’ to focus on Zuma and leave the women who are his partners alone in public criticism.
When one of these women is an elected public official, she will be subjected to as much scrutiny from those of us who think that public responsibility matters. But so far, the women that Jacob Zuma has relationships are not elected officials – save for Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who married and divorced Zuma. These other women are private citizens of interest and are therefore not obliged to act

Myth 6: Feminists ignore that women choose to enter into polygynous relationships.
See comments under “Myth 3”. There is nothing automatically feminist about either monogamous or polygamous relationships. Women will choose relationships with differing degrees of choice given that we live in a patriarchal and therefore unequal world. Not all women are feminist. No oppressive system has ever succeeded without the complicity and active support of members of those classes/groups it seeks to oppress. This is part of why the personal is political.

Myth 7: An apology deserves automatic acknowledgment and forgiveness, which is really the only way to deal with offered apologies in life.
Would that not just be fantastic? Then we call all go home to that great lala land that Ray McCauley lives in where all of us are Christians, and those of us who are Christians subscribe to the same gold gilded version he does. And there’d be no powerful oppressive institutions like white supremacy, patriarchy, Islamaphobia, imperialism, etc., because everything would be about individual pain and acknowledgement. This way, the only institutions we’d recognise would be the ones led by conservative men who tell us to shut up unless we listen to them justifying the validity of those other power matrices that supposedly don’t exist.

And no, I am not ‘the feminist spokesperson’. I don’t think we need one – we are all our own spokespersons. Women – whether they are feminists or not – are often not taken seriously in this country. Often what we say, and even our differences are generalised as though we are a mass with one mouth. This is patriarchy’s work – finish and klaar. The fact of the matter is that a variety of criticisms have been directed at President Zuma – but none of the variety is addressed in those who jump to his defense.


Posted on 10 February 2010, in feminist worlds, Southern African politics, things that suck, Uncategorized, Women's wit and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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