Cape Town — The rise to power of South Africa's first polygamous head of state in the modern era* is causing confusion in the media, and the office of President Jacob Zuma is now trying to set them straight.
Responding to a rash of reports arising from Zuma's wedding last week to his newest wife, Tobeka Madiba-Zuma, the presidency issued a statement on Wednesday seeking, as it put it, to "clarify a few points":
- South Africa's Constitution and public service regulations make no formal provision for "a First Lady or First Ladies."
- President Zuma will be accompanied to official or public engagements by any of his current wives, "or all of them at the same time should he so decide. This is his prerogative."
- Zuma has three wives, not five, as "incorrect media reports" have stated. They are: Sizakele Khumalo (referred to by Zulu and wider African custom as MaKhumalo), Nompumelelo Ntuli (MaNtuli) and Tobeka Madiba (KaMadiba).
- In addition, the president "has a fiancée, Ms. Bongi Ngema."
The reference to incorrect reports appears to relate to coverage which numbers among Zuma's wives Kate Zuma, who died in 2000, and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the Home Affairs minister, to whom Zuma was previously married.
And the reference to the status of a "First Lady" may have something to do with a report in a national tabloid, The Times, claiming there is "bickering between MaNtuli and Mabhija (sic) about who should become first lady..."
The presidency also spelled out for the first time the nature of the work in which Zuma's wives are interested:
- "MaKhumalo's area of interest is agriculture and food security, and she runs a vegetable garden project in Nkandla" (the president's home village in rural KwaZulu-Natal);
- "KaMadiba has a special interest in health matters, especially work relating to the fight against cervical cancer;" and
- "MaNtuli's focus is in social development, and she does a lot of work relating to assisting orphans and vulnerable children."
The presidency's statement even sought to educate those backroom journalists whose task it is to correct reporters' mistakes and write headlines.
"Note to subs" (sub-editors), it said: "In the isiZulu culture, married or adult women whose surnames begin with 'Ma' automatically inherit the prefix 'Ka' instead of 'Ma' to avoid tautology, which is why Ms. Madiba-Zuma is not referred to as 'MaMadiba'."
It's not only South Africa's journalists who are being challenged to develop a new sensitivity to Zulu and African culture. The Times reported that London's Guardian newspaper "made an amusing faux pas" in reporting that Zuma slipped and fell during a solo dance at the traditional Zulu wedding ceremony.
Zuma had in fact been performing a traditional indlamu dance, said The Times. "Traditionally, an indlamu dancer makes a series of warrior gestures and stomps the ground before dramatically falling onto his buttocks."
* The modern South African state was formed from two British colonies and two Boer republics a century ago in 1910.