The president of South Africa, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, who turned 70 on 12 April this year, announced yesterday that he would be marrying his fourth wife this coming weekend. It will be his sixth marriage. He divorced one wife in 1998 and another committed suicide in 2000 but 1, 2 and 3 are happy Mrs Zumas and can be seen in the picture below, along with wife-to-be, Bongi. From these six wives – yes, the Henry VIII jokes can be inserted here – he has produced 20 children.
20 children and 4 wives in a country with the world’s highest HIV/AIDS infection rate and crushing poverty to boot, seems a bit off-colour to me. But polygamy is legal in South Africa, as it is in Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, Morocco and Malaysia.
Polygamy has a long history.
King Solomon is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines. His fortune from those mines must surely have been vast. And Mr Zuma’s biblical namesake, Jacob, also had 4 wives. Subsequent to his first monogamous marriage of 25 years, the Prophet Muhammad took another 11 wives – the Mothers of the Believers. Even stern old Martin Luther gave dispensation for polygamous marriage.
I know this and I really can see the benefits of polygamous relationships, but it makes me particularly uncomfortable to think of four wives at a dinner party. It is not part of my culture and I would hate to be ageing wife number 1 (with all of her status but no blush of youth) almost as much as I would hate to be new-kid-on-the-block number 4 (with beauty but no history).
But our president is not the only man I read about this week with an eye for the ladies. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), the great diarist, was a renowned Lothario but I was shocked nonetheless and giggled quite a lot when I read the following diary extract:
“Lord’s Day 18 August 1667
I walked towards Whitehall; but being weary, turned into St Dunstan’s church, where I hear an able sermon of the minister of the place. And stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and body; but she would not, but got further and further from me, and at last I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again; which seeing, I did forebear, and glad I did espy her design. And then I fell to gaze upon another pretty maid in a pew close to me, and she on me; and I did go about to take her by the hand, which she suffered a little. and then withdrew. So the sermon ended and the church broke up, and my amours ended also.”
These are the words of a respected man. He worked for the government. He fondled strangers. In church.
My third bounder of the week is the great Randlord, Julius Jeppe – a relative of my mother-in-law. (The Randlords were a group of men who made piles of money in the early days of the Johannesburg gold rush. Most of them arrived with established fortunes from the diamond mines in Kimberley.) Julius did not share Mr Zuma’s or Mr Pepys’s insatiable fondness for the ladies but he did have in common with Jacob Zuma, an uncanny knack for making money. He was also, in person, more fun-loving and less venerable than history would have us see him.
In Zeederburg’s book about Johannesburg pioneers, which I borrowed from the library and have now lost in the house – I will have a desperate word with St. Anthony shortly – he describes an evening of tomfoolery. Julius Jeppe and a group of said esteemed Randlords gathered in the huge market square after dark. They lit the square with lanterns, convinced the local cattle owners to lend them bulls for the evening and raced around the un-paved square on bull-back. There was utter chaos as the great and the good manhandled their beasts of burden in a puff of red dust. Only one “jockey” was hurt when his bull raced off the track and down the newly laid-out streets of the town. The winner of the race was treated to a champagne dinner for two.
Julius Jeppe’s story is certainly less scandalous than the other two but it makes me smile because it is something my dad would have done; he once rode an ostrich. It is something my husband kind-of did when he ran with the bulls in Pamplona. All three stories make me want to shrug my shoulders and sigh, “Boys will be boys”. We women can tut-tut, pay lower insurance premiums and continue to run the world from the side-lines, albeit with a pin or two in our pockets.