If nothing else, President Jacob Zuma's belated apology about his out-of-wedlock child with Sonono Khoza following unprecedented outrage at the way he has demeaned the highest office in the land has shown the power of public opinion in a democracy. We have also established once and for all that the personal is political and that leaders must practice what they preach where HIV and AIDS is concerned.
Still lacking from the public discourse, however, is how Zuma has taken the country back a few decades when it comes to the progressive gender discourse so proudly a part of the new South Africa. In the week that we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from jail, and awaited President Zuma's State of the Nation address at the start of a new decade, his crass behaviour reminded us that there is still a long walk to freedom for South African women.
2010 opened with a frenzy of reports about Zuma's third wife and fifth marriage, peppered with letters and opinion pieces justifying polygamy on the grounds that it's not illegal or unconstitutional; that it's better to be transparent about relationships than have concubines hidden away and that liberalism demands tolerance of all lifestyles.
The love child case shattered this sycophantic barrage. It showed that contrary to Zuma's own claims about openness within his polygamous circle, the president philanders at will outside this circle. Of course, we already knew this to be the case from the trial that acquitted Zuma of rape, but revealed that he had unprotected extra-marital sex with an HIV positive woman half his age before he became president.
That case and the outcry it caused when he said he had a shower to prevent himself getting infected got conveniently forgotten as Zuma earned brownie points on World AIDS Day by going for testing. Now we are at least waking up to the fact that it's as dangerous to have a hypocrite as it is to have a denialist leading the country in the fight against this deadly pandemic.
We're also coming around to the fact that whatever the African National Congress (ANC) and Zuma himself may say about his right to privacy, leaders answer to a higher set of standards than even the courts may set. They are role models who set the tone and pace for the rest of the nation: think, for example, of the messages that Barack and Michelle Obama exude about race and gender in the US and further afield.
Yes, polygamy is not illegal in South Africa. But how does it square with a Constitution that provides for the equal rights of women? The South African Law Reform Commission concluded that a system that allows men to have several wives while a woman can only have one husband is self-evidently unequal. It went on to say that unfortunately allowing women to have many husbands offered no real solution in a deeply patriarchal society. The Commission argued that giving women in polygamous relationships equal rights would protect these women and lead to this system gradually fading away for social and economic reasons.
The role of progressive leaders is to push the envelope, not take us back in time. Mandela, despite having similar traditional roots to Zuma, struck a goal for gender equality when he married former Mozambican first lady Graca Machel who kept her surname and identity, and negotiated a commuter marriage between two countries. With Zuma, who has tried to step into Mandela's shoes, it has become the fashion to flaunt women and children in a way that says: my conquests, my wealth, my possessions.
In response to the frequently asked question: what about the women who choose to be his additional wives or mistresses it is amazing that we fail to question the meaning of "choice" where the forces of power are still so heavily stacked against women. Wherever there is a power imbalance, some in the ranks of the powerless will buy into the agenda of the powerful: witness for example the homeland leaders under apartheid. That surely did not make the system right!
What is frightening about the effect of Zuma on gender discourse in South Africa is that because the most powerful man in the land is involved, the ANC Women's League (also the driving force behind the Progressive Women's Movement) has lost its voice, joining in the cacophony of Zuma's right to privacy, to practice his culture, without the slightest critique of how this sits with constitutional provisions for equality.
According to Zuma, all men need do if they go around fathering children with many women is accept paternity, pay damages, invoke children's rights, blame the media and claim their right to privacy. If that does not work, you can also say "sorry" before rushing off to deliver the State of the Nation address.
In a serious case of de je vu its only in another moment of crisis that we are being reminded that although the judge in the 2006 rape trial did not find sufficient evidence to convict Zuma, he took a dim view of Zuma's conduct. Following the outrage over Zuma's comments in court about showering away the AIDS risk, he said: "I wish to state categorically and place on record that I erred in having unprotected sex. I should have known better. And I should have acted with greater caution and responsibility."
Evidently, no lessons were learned as Zuma has since not abstained, acted faithfully, or used a condom. The issue is not whether or not Zuma should step down as president, but the fact that if we had included attitudes towards women as a key test of leadership - a point many of us made at the time - he should never have been president!
Now, as Sibongile Dabeka, a disgruntled ANC supporter, asks in a letter to the Sunday Independent this week: "How do you market a president who sees young women as potential sleeping partners rather than comrades? How does a revolutionary become a feudalist or traditionalist?" How, indeed, are we to square polygamy, promiscuity and the progressive values of the ANC that Mandela gave his life for and that Zuma agrees he must uphold? If we are to push our democracy to greater heights, how now are we to emerge from this quagmire?
- Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service. It is republished here with permission from Gender Links, a NGO committed to a Southern Africa in which women and men are able to participate equally in all aspects of public and private life.