Some say two’s company and three’s a crowd. Others reckon, the more the merrier.
For some people I know within the Zulu culture I am (supposedly a very treacherous) member of, having more than one wife signifies the ability to establish and maintain large or multiple households, which, in turn, gives you social kudos and say-so among fellow male household heads in society. Because you’re responsible for more of society’s growth and sustenance.
It’s not purely about one-upmanship, but it is an opportunity to display raw virility and capability. Whichever way you spin it, the number of female spouses, kids, cattle, etc. is seen as directly proportional to a man’s power, and therefore, rights.
This is why, for example, a certain high-ranking government employee in a polygamous marriage is willing to all but break the public bank to keep the pomp and shine of that living arrangement. And it is why vast numbers of his worshipers are willing to sacrifice almost anything to his network of patronage and friends. For his is the power, the honour, dominion, glory and praise, forever and ever, amen.
As a real Zulu man he has single-handedly populated a sizable part of our Zulu nation, rescuing it from oblivion, insignificance and erasure among the other black tribes and, for that matter, other races.
So we owe him; he does not owe us for the cost of this exercise or for Nkaaaaaaandla. So much for #PayBackTheMoney
As a country, we legally recognize polygamous (technically, polygynious, “to many women”) marriages but not polyandrous (“to many men”) marriages. When asked why polygamous relationships are recognized, the experts I’ve spoken to cited people’s right to self-determination. If many women want to marry one man and vice-versa, our Constitution makes provision for the choice.
But when asked why polyandry isn’t recognized on the same grounds, they quickly change the reason we recognize polygamy in the first place. Then it becomes the recognition of indigenous customs and customary marriage. The Constitution of South Africa prioritizes the protection of indigenous cultures because colonialism and apartheid disparaged the heritage of indigenous people-groups; in fact, some people do even now, unable to distinguish between critiquing a culture and outright dissing it.
And that’s the problem: many people think the constitution’s protecting a culture from disparagement is the same as protecting it from examination. And while this assumption props up the enchanting mystique and impenetrability of the “it’s our culture” trope, the reason is circumstantial without on-going relevance at best, and a generous allowance we’ve made for traditionalism at worst. In our constitutional democracy, nothing should fall beneath the realization of the Bill of Rights. Not even the culture that my proud, wise ancestors handed down to me as a Zulu man, nor, for that matter, the President’s right to practice it beyond the reasonable boundaries of public need and safety.
As for that much-lauded commodity consent (“But these women have agreed to marry the one man”) I think we owe it to one another and ourselves not to always accept a person’s consent at face value but to try to see whether it was in any way coerced, if not by people, then by circumstance. And to resolve those circumstances.
In other words, if I am reading my Bill of Rights correctly, we ought to work for the maximal empowerment and emancipation of each and every individual in our country.
The most loving thing societies can do for their girls and women is instil a culture-based sense of identity in them as women.
The most loving thing I can do as feminist is withhold my rage against that understanding of love.
Do you see the conflict?
Self-determination in its fullest sense is only real when a person has been exposed to and empowered to pick from many prospective ways of being in the world.
An empowered, educated woman may legitimately choose marry a man with many other wives. This is hypothetically possible.
But she should just as easily be able choose to have more than one husband herself. For that is also hypothetically possible.
that thing about all persons being equal before the Law of the Land, yes?
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment and share.
Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex.