Jacob Zuma’s straying outside his three marriages roils South Africa

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President Jacob Zuma already has three wives and numerous children. He has survived a trial on charges that he raped the daughter of an old friend; and in a country with one of the highest HIV rates on Earth, he has been forced to apologize publicly for having unprotected sex.

His acknowledgment this week that he had fathered one more child, by many counts his 20th, outside his three marriages has launched another sex scandal, one that shows no sign of going away any time soon.

Details of the 67-year-old president’s sex life contradict the government’s HIV/AIDS campaign, an important element of which is reducing rampant promiscuity. But the scandal appears to have hit a deeper nerve: a sense that Zuma crossed an invisible line.

The birth of his latest child unsettled his core supporters, traditionalists who accept polygamy but regard having a child outside those multiple marriages as improper. Many other South Africans, particularly urbanites, are disquieted by polygamy. The practice sits awkwardly with the country’s stated commitment to gender equality.

Zuma ignored revelations of the birth of his latest child for three days, then issued a brief statement Wednesday acknowledging paternity and attacking the news media. That only made things worse: Critics attacked his view that the news media had no right to probe his private life

After the blaring headlines (“Shame of a Nation”) and cartoons (“The Sex-President”), Zuma canceled public engagements for two days, citing his workload.

One of his sons, Duduzane Zuma, released a rare statement Friday begging the media to leave his father alone: “We as a family are content with the polygamous nature of our household. We are content to have 20 siblings or more.”

The weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper was having none of it.

“Over and over President Jacob Zuma has asked South Africans to stretch tolerance to its dizzy limit, and by and large we have complied,” it said in a stinging editorial. “But this week, from dusty streets and taxi ranks to cocktail bars and Facebook pages, it was clear that the elastic had snapped.”

It accused Zuma of betraying the public trust after the apology that followed the 2006 trial in which he was acquitted of raping the daughter of a longtime family friend. “I erred in having unprotected sex,” he said then. “I should have known better.”

In court testimony, he said he had showered afterward because he believed it would reduce the likelihood of contracting AIDS from his HIV-positive accuser.

The acquittal and apology helped clear the path for Zuma, a longtime power in the governing African National Congress, to become president last year.

Zuma has been married to his first wife since 1973. One spouse committed suicide in 2000, leaving a note that life with him was “hell.” He divorced South Africa’s current home affairs minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 1998. But he married another wife in 2008, and a third just a month ago.

The mother of his latest child, a 4-month-old girl, is Sonono Khoza, a bank official and daughter of an old friend of Zuma: Irvin Khoza, the head of South Africa’s 2010 soccer World Cup organizing committee. Because of strictures in Zulu culture on having a child outside multiple marriages, Zuma had to pay damages to the family.

Mail & Guardian columnist Charlotte Bauer said in an interview that she initially couldn’t embrace Zuma’s polygamy, but after a lot of thinking and many discussions with friends, she accepted it as part of the country’s reality.

But a public show of tolerance by many South Africans that is at odds with their private views on polygamy may explain the depth of the backlash, she said. “South Africans are quite conservative people in terms of morality and family and God and Christ,” she said. “People have suddenly gone: ‘Look, you had a very big canvas to paint on, mate, and you went over the limit.’ ”

Zuma recently defended his polygamy at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, saying he loved all his wives equally, and adding with a smile that some Zulu people believe their culture is superior.

Others say bad timing sharpens their embarrassment over Zuma’s behavior. In March, Zuma plans to visit Britain, where he will meet the queen and Prince Charles. In June, South Africa hosts the soccer World Cup tournament.

Said an editorial in the Star newspaper this week: “His rampant libido has made South Africa a laughingstock of the world.”