Christi van der Westhuizen
Christi van der Westhuizen

The ‘bonus’ of polygamy, but only if you’re ‘indigenous’ (Part 1)

A year or so ago a “gentleman’s club” — or, more specifically, a club where women take off their clothes for men in return for money — plastered large promotional posters all over bus stops in Cape Town.

The exhibited draw card was a stereotypical arrangement: a group of gaudy women propped up around a centrally placed, seated man holding the required thick cigar between his fingers. There have been many movie posters promoting similar images — sometimes tongue in cheek, usually not. And every fifth music video on MTV or VH1 show a male rapper with golden rings, chains and teeth, accompanied by a decorative herd of females in various stages of undress.

In a patriarchal, capitalist society powerful men’s status is currently again indicated by an accompanying collection of ultra-feminine women — along with money, cars or, in the world of the super rich, private jets. Nowadays we can see the “indigenous” version: Jacob Zuma and his group of spouses posing at last year’s parliamentary opening have activated a fashion among wealthy businessmen.

The polygamists pose for photos that the media eagerly publish — a visual repetition of the “thorn among the roses”.

True to the symbolism of the collection of women as a sign of masculine potency, Zuma has since his acquittal in his rape trial in 2006 married two young women (33 and 37 years old) and got engaged to another. If he marries her, she will be his fourth current wife and it will be his sixth wedding. The recent revelation of his sexual interaction with another friend’s daughter confirms the pattern.

As I have previously argued, Zuma’s contribution to his ideologically motley coalition of forces is ethnic and patriarchal chauvinism. It had to have a popular effect, given South Africans’ obsessive following of “leaders”.

It is also not a surprise that the effect can partly be seen in the form of setbacks to women’s human rights. After all, Zuma’s rise is due to conservative groupings’ increasingly vocal and growing resistance to the claiming of the right to autonomy by many women.

Culture is a popular cloak with which to hide the undermining of women’s rights because black and white progressives can easily be silenced with it. A black feminist has to choose between solidarity with her black “brothers” or solidarity with white feminists — not much of a choice in a country where the latter, because of their whiteness, can (frequently opportunistically) be linked with the former class of oppressors and therefore be dismissed.

But, as a black feminist once remarked to me, it is noticeable that some black people justify certain practices as “African culture” but totally forget about “African culture” while they revel in the perks of Western individualism and capitalism.

Why “should” some practices continue because they are “cultural” while other cultural practices and attitudes (such as putting the welfare of the group before that of the individual) can be chucked in the pursuit of personal enrichment, as we have seen in this country since 1994?

The ideological use of “culture” today becomes clearer when we read Ugandan thinker Mahmood Mamdani’s work.

He points out in his highly regarded book Citizen and Subject (1996) that what has been sold on this continent as African culture is in fact merely the authoritarian aspects of pre-colonial systems.

British colonial bureaucrats specifically chose the most repressive form of government to ensure the sustainability of the British system of indirect rule. Male traditional leaders were elevated to local despots by concentrating the executive, legislative and judicial powers in their area in their hands, based on ethnicised identities.

This is how the sphere of customary law came into existence. It was totally separate from the sphere of civil law within which a racially defined hierarchy of citizens (including the settlers) enjoyed civil rights.

According to Mamdani there were also democratic forms of government in pre-colonial Africa where women were not just participants in decision-making but, in some places, rulers. The British were not interested in these systems; the traditional leader had to rule the rights-less subjects of the British Empire with an iron fist. The NP policy of separate development in “homelands” took this scheme further.

To some South African black women the colonial system provided the possibility of escape from local patriarchy — into the arms of Western patriarchy, which made their lives contradictory. Chiefs and other local men felt their grip on “their” women slipping.

These men advocated the strengthening of patriarchal arrangements in customary law, according to the sociologist Cherryl Walker in the book Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945. This must have contributed to the pinning down of black women as “perpetual minors” in the Black Administration Act of 1927.

In a chapter in William Gumede and Leslie Dikeni’s recent book The Poverty of Ideas, Mamdani writes how the ANC has moved from rejecting African traditionalism as “undemocratic” to embracing it. The obvious reason is the wooing of traditional leaders to ensure their underlings’ electoral support.

The ironic consequence, says Mamdani, is that democratic South Africa remains saddled with a dualistic legal system — just like apartheid South Africa. Civil law and rights have been deracialised but exist side by side with an ethnicised customary law applied by ethnicised authorities. HF Verwoerd would have smiled.

According to Mamdani, mainstream nationalists’ reproduction of the dualistic colonial legal system has been a pattern across Africa after independence. But this time round it is aimed as a benefit to the “indigenous” citizens, as opposed to the “non-indigenous” citizens.

If you are “indigenous”, you get a “bonus”: along with your newly acquired civil rights you also enjoy the rights associated with the African customary law regime.

The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998, which applies only to “indigenous Africans”, would be an example of this. But, as we will see in my next blog, in this case only black men get to enjoy the “bonus” customary rights conferred upon “indigenous” South Africans by the colonial and apartheid systems.

*A different version of this article appeared in Media24’s By supplement on 23 January 2010.