The President and the First, Second and Third Ladies

JISHOU, HUNAN — South Africa has elected its third president since majority rule began, Jacob Zuma, who enters office with not one, but three wives.

Zuma and his wives are Zulu, and under the South African Constitution, the Zulu tradition of permitting a man to have several wives is perfectly legal. Even so, Zuma’s campaign skirted the issue of his marital status throughout most of the election process.

The burning protocol question now is, “Which one becomes the official First Lady?” Do they take turns? Does the senior wife gain the title? Should there be Second and Third Ladies?

The Constitution provides no guidance.

Zuma, 67, married his reclusive senior wife, Sizakele Khumalo, in 1973. Last year, he married a younger, more sociable second wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli. Then the vigorous Zuma paid lobola to marry his third spouse, Thobeka Mabhija, who like Ntuli is about half Zuma’s age.

[Lobola is another Zulu tradition. A man wishing to marry a woman must prove to her parents that he can support her by giving them a substantial gift. In the countryside, it might be cattle. In the city, it might be cash. To us Americans, it may sound like a man is buying a wife, but that is a misconception. A young teacher friend of mine spent three years saving money before he had enough to convince his fiancee’s family he was a worthy husband. Zuma probably had an easier time coughing up the money, though.]

Zuma has 19 children, too, ranging in age from infant to 30-ish. Clearly, this man does not need Viagra.

I can’t help but wonder how such a scenario would play out here in the US, assuming polygamy were legal here. Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity would have apoplexy.

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