09 January 2009

Jacob Zuma, culture of polygamy, and multiple concurrent partnerships

In an email on 9 Januiary, I was asked by a South African journalist, Helen Grange, to express some opinions about 'multiple concurrent partnerships', as these have been recently perceived. She is a 'senior contract writer for The Star newspaper' in Johannesburg. She asked four questions:

Polygamy as a cultural practice, referring to Jacob Zuma’s fifth wedding (currently being planned): Has this tradition been corrupted and does it still have a place in modern African society?

Sugar daddies: Has materialism assisted in this perversion of the culture of polygamy, and is it a growing phenomenon?

Celebrity immunity: Why are football stars like Benedict Vilakazi ‘immune’ from social judgement over their infidelities and casual sex? What does it say about modern culture?

Alcohol: To what extent does this contribute to MCP (casual sex) and how does one reverse the drinking culture that’s so pervasive?

Here is what I said, for what its might be worth to others thinking about these issues. Joournalist only use a sentence or two, if that, and there was much more to say about the questions she asked.

9/1/2009

Helen,

OK. Thanks for the questions. I don’t have a lot of time this morning either, so let me make a few comments quickly, on the questions you are raised.

Polygamy as a cultural practice, referring to Jacob Zuma’s fifth wedding (currently being planned): Has this tradition been corrupted and does it still have a place in modern African society?

Yes, of course this has been corrupted. Whether we call it polygamy is a moot point. He is exploiting his political and cultural celebrity in a very directly sexual way. This is not ‘tradition’ in the sense that it comes from the past, or is particularly Zulu.

Polygamy is ALWAYS restricted to the powerful or wealthy since there is numerically one woman for each man. Polygamy is more of a political structure or strategy. Where is it widespread, that is, where powerful men dominate most women through marriage, and incorporate them into households as part of a system of political domination, then the main problem become NOT control of the women (who are looked after), but control of the large numbers of men who will never have opportunity to marry or have families of their own. They must either be incorporated into gangs run by the warlords who dominate the market n women, inducted into armies or regiments, and controlled by military discipline, or sent into battle in order to die. We see this in much of the historical and contemporary Middle Eastern societies, Somalia, Sudan, and so on.

In southern Africa the situation is less dire because married women have liaisons outside of polygamous marriages and thus the unmarried men have some access to goods and sex through this.

The women Zuma is ‘marrying’ are also exploiting Zuma, and marrying or having sex with him for the economic, status, and political benefits it can provide to them. This is not ‘patriarchy’ but mutual exploitation of advantage through establishment of sexual networks. In this case, sexual networks become in practice just another form of business deal or patronage system to distribute state-derived funds and other goods and money.

We must keep in mind too that most of the current ANC political and business elites have been in sexual relationships with each other over the past several decades, including most if not all of the senior women. This is mostly based on hearsay and rumour, and you may not be able to report it, but just the well-known and marital relationships and ex-marriages that we know about establish the fact that the ANC elite is already a dense sexual network. In this they merely reflect a wide-spread South African pattern. Jacob Zuma stands out, however, in seeking to legitimate his sexual relationships through marriage. This probably makes it easier for him to distribute benefits to his followers through his wives.

Again, this is not unusual. King Mswati does the same thing for the same reason. Marrying many wives and using these linkages as ways to establish and maintain political and economic advantage through patronage is a pattern found in many, if not all, African political systems in central, eastern and southern Africa. It is not new; it takes a different form in a ‘democracy’.

The issue that this raises, however, is that should Zuma become President, there will be great pressure to accommodate his many wives, their families, and followers into some aspect of government patronage systems. This will place a great burden on the financial resources of the state.

The next step would be succession struggle among Zuma’s wives and children when/if we were to eventually relinquish the presidency or die early from AIDS.

Thus, the issue is not really ‘polygamy as a cultural practice’. It is not. It is legal, of course, and has been practiced within African cultures in SA and the rest of the continent (as well as by Mormons, European royalty, etc…). It should be treated, however, as a form of political structure designed to distribute patronage from the centre and to form alliances that will support a powerful elite.

Q: Sugar daddies: Has materialism assisted in this perversion of the culture of polygamy, and is it a growing phenomenon?

It is hard to say. In southern Africa, as in West Africa, there are also ‘sugar mommies’, and in this respect, it is pretty equal opportunity. There are lots of wealthy women, or women with sufficient independent resources to support lovers. Although popular culture together with much of the professional literature and beliefs support the idea that men as ‘sugar daddies’ are a problem, this is hardly the case for men alone. The beliefs that this is a male phenomenon are probably not supported by fact, and are themselves a problem.

Are they a ‘perversion’ of culture? No. Since polygamy is always about political and economic domination of sex and other material resources, the continuation of this in other political and economic forms cannot be called a ‘perversion of culture’. In earlier times this involved resources such as cattle a fields, and was tied to dominant lineages and what anthropologists call “family-property complexes”. It is more varied and diverse these days, and usually conducted with cash as the primary medium of exchange and wealth (not cattle and fields), but it is essentially a low-level political and economic system for distribution of wealth among followers.

This is probably what you mean by ‘materialism’.

It is not a growing phenomenon except for the fact that the economy is now bigger (though currently shrinking somewhat).

Q: Celebrity immunity: Why are football stars like Benedict Vilakazi ‘immune’ from social judgement over their infidelities and casual sex? What does it say about modern culture?

Again, this is not a characteristic of ‘modern culture’. Cultural and economic elites in all societies and through time have had greater sexual access and more “immunity” from social judgment. That’s life. The fact that he is a football star makes his life more visible to the press and to his fans, but it does not make it unusual, nor is it something new.

What it says about ‘modern culture’ is that , according to the old adage “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”—“the more things change, the more they stay the same”!

I think what is more relevant in this case is that media elites are seen to have multiple partners, and that these are concurrent partners. That is, they have multiple girlfriends (or boyfriends) at the same time, and that this is tolerated, even emulated, and held up as something to be copied and valued.

As we know this is one of the best ways to spread sexual infections, including HIV, but not only HIV. Since large numbers of southern Africans are also murdered as the result of jealousy and domestic conflict, and large numbers sustain both psychological and physical injuries as the result of their sexual choices, the damage is far more than it would seem. Jealousy does not disappear simply because everyone wants multiple sexual partners. That continues to exist, and leads to a great deal of unhappiness. AIDS is only one of the consequences.

Again, it is important to realise that this is not the province of men alone. Women exploit the ‘system’ for reasons that are partly the same as men’s, but also sometimes different. Both men and women have motives to be involved in multiple concurrent partnerships, and clearly both participate more or less equally. Women manage to control knowledge of it much more successfully than men, however, and men a motivated to publicise these liaisons in ways that women do not.

Alcohol: To what extent does this contribute to MCP (casual sex) and how does one reverse the drinking culture that’s so pervasive?

Yes. Of course alcohol is involved, but I doubt very much if the system of sexual networks and multiple concurrent partnerships would change in the absence of alcohol. Alcohol abuse may increase casual sex (though this is not necessarily true just because we believe it to be true), but it is hardly essential to the existence of sex in this form or any other.

I have no idea how to change drinking cultures, and doubt very much that this can be done at all. I don’t think the connection to sex is any greater than its connection to business, excess eating, golf, Christmas, or many other things.

Post a Comment