The Many Faces of South Africa’s First Ladies
Who is South Africa’s official first lady? This is a question that begs for an answer, because the wives of South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, are numerous. Add to the mix his fiancées, girlfriends and rumored mistresses, and we are left pondering the answer to this million-dollar question. Moving from former President Mandela’s monogamous marriage to President Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist and self-proclaimed polygamist, the nation of South Africa has been faced with the dilemma of choosing a first lady from a polygamous home. How is the first lady determined? Is it the first wife, the most active wife, or the youngest wife? Or perhaps the most beautiful wife, the most educated, or President Zuma’s favorite?
As the nation contemplated who would be South Africa’s first lady in 2009, the bid was between Gertrude Sizakele Khumalo-Zuma who has seniority, and Nompumelelo Ntuli Zuma, the second wife with the glamour and ease needed for social situations. The former was rarely seen in public, but the latter who maintains her maiden, Ntuli, as is customary in polygamous marriages is more active outside the home and in politics. In the wake of his inauguration, President Zuma answered the nation and the world by bringing his two wives and then fiancée, Thobeka Madiba, to his inauguration, and later, to his official state and social events. While South Africa’s constitution has no provision for a First Lady or First Ladies, the presidency provides administrative support to the president’s spouses through its spousal office. The spouses of the president of South Africa may choose to engage in community work, however it is not mandatory. All community work done by the wives of President Zuma are purely on a voluntary or personal basis.
Profiling South Africa’s first ladies would be incomplete without accounting for all of Zuma’s five marriages and his three current wives. It is imperative to note that South Africa’s law recognizes polygamy, and it is an accepted Zulu cultural practice. However there has been rumbling and disapproval amongst South Africans over the polygamous choices of their president. Zuma however once said, “There are plenty of politicians who have mistresses and children that they hide so as to pretend they’re monogamous. I prefer to be open. I love my wives, and I’m proud of my children.”
Gertrude Sizakele Khumalo-Zuma: is in her sixties and is the first wife and childhood sweetheart of Jacob Zuma. They met in 1959, and were married in 1973 after his release from prison. They do not have any children together, but according to reports, MaKhumalo, as she is affectionately known, looks after many of Zuma’s other children. She was in attendance at Zuma’s inauguration, and she is described as very shy. MaKhumalo lives and presides over the homestead in Nkandla where she is rarely seen in public. She is active in the community, and her interest is agriculture and food security. She runs a vegetable garden and a tuck-shop in Nkandia. For MaKhumalo, the needs of her neighbors at the Nkandla homestead in northern KwaZulu-Natal are her priority, and a community chicken project involving the raising of baby chicks takes up most of her time. Zuma has praised her as “a wife, a friend, a sister and a mother to me”.
Nompumelelo Ntuli Zuma: is Zuma’s fourth marriage and second current wife; she is in her mid-thirties and born after Zuma married his first wife. MaNtuli, as she is fondly referred to is Zuma’s youngest wife to date. An ANC activist and former nurse, she married Zuma in 2007 and received a lot of media attention in the wake of Zuma’s bid for the presidency. They have two children (a boy and a girl) together. MaNtuli divides her time between a home in Durban and the homestead in Nkandla. Her focus is on social development and work that assists orphans and vulnerable children. She is also the most controversial wife, with controversy ranging from an alleged extra-marital affair with one of her bodyguards to her negligence in paying her staffs’ wages.
Thobeka Madiba Zuma: or Majhiba as she is called by the press is Zuma’s newest wife and she is in her late thirties. She and Zuma got married in January 2010, however, she had acted in the capacity of wife long before the official marriage ceremony. She was with Zuma and his two wives at his inauguration in May 2009, and also accompanied him to social and state events. KaMadiba grew up in Umlazi, and later attended and graduated from the Umlazi campus of the University of Zululand. A well-dressed Durban socialite, KaMadiba and Zuma have been together for over ten years and are reported to have three children together. KaMadiba is Zuma’s most outgoing wife, and she is known for her designer outfits. She has special interest in health issues. In 2010, KaMadiba established the Tobeka Madiba Zuma Foundation to lend a helping hand to the impoverished, less fortunate and sick with a special focus on cervical and breast cancer. A former chairperson and current member of the Forum of African First Ladies Against Breast and Cervical Cancer (FAFLABCC,) the Tobeka Madiba Zuma Foundation honors the aims and objectives of the FFAFLABCC.
In addition to the above-mentioned official first ladies of South Africa, Zuma has been married two other times. Kate Mantsho was his second marriage and was a Mozambique airline staffer whom he married in 1976 during his exile. They had five children together but she committed suicide in 2000 leaving a note which stated that life with Zuma was hard. Zuma’s third marriage was to Nkosazana Diamini-Zuma, South Africa’s current Home Affairs minister. They were married in the 1980s, but met when Zuma was in exile and Nkosazana was a Pediatrics medical officer in Swaziland’s Mbabane Government Hospital. They have four children together and were divorced in 1998.
With five marriages under his belt and three current wives, Zuma is not yet done. There are rumors of a few other marriages in his future. He is currently engaged to a number of women with his latest fiancée being Gloria Bongi Ngema.
Whether you are for or against polygamy, President Zuma and his wives are here to stay. If the saying ‘behind every great man, there is a great woman is true, then we are faced with a man overflowing with greatness amidst a life of ‘soap-drama’. It is a pre-colonial African tradition almost blossoming in a globalized westernized blur. The roles of his three wives are not defined, but in their own little ways, they are making contributions to their nation. Afrikan Goddess is for women and about women and we question the role of polygamy in a modern society and whether it elevates or demotes the role of women. For a man, it can be a mark of power and status. However, for the women involved, what are the significant benefits? How are the identities of the first ladies of South Africa played out away from the eyes of the nation and the world, and in the privacy of the home where they are simply women, mothers and wives?