South African President Jacob Zuma dances with Tobeka Madiba at his homestead… (Rajesh Jantilal / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — South Africa gained its third first lady on Monday when President Jacob Zuma married Tobeka Madiba, his fifth marriage and third concurrent spouse. With another fiancee in the wings and rumors about a possible future engagement, the country may have five or more first ladies before Zuma's presidency is over.
Zuma's polygamy sits uneasily with the ruling party's commitment to gender equality and has been criticized by women's rights and AIDS activists. But despite the disquiet in some quarters, Monday's wedding passed without media controversy.
Reporting focused on the huge crowd that tramped through mud to join the wedding celebrations; the large bed reportedly delivered to Zuma's rural mansion on the eve of the nuptials; and reports that the 67-year-old president, clad in animal skins and white tennis shoes, fell while performing the Zulu wedding dance.
About 2,000 guests attended the wedding at Zuma's homestead in KwaZulu-Natal province. Sheep and goats were slaughtered for the feast.
Zuma's first wife, Sizakele Khumalo, 67, is a shy rural woman with little education whom Zuma married in 1973. Popularly known as MaKhumalo, she has more than 2,500 adoring fans on Facebook.
In 2008, Zuma married Nompumelelo Ntuli, who, in her mid-30s, is the youngest wife.
Madiba, 38, is the most publicly active, taking on as her causes cervical and breast cancer and AIDS orphans. She and Zuma have three children.
One spouse, Kate Mantsho Zuma, committed suicide in 2000, leaving a note that life with her husband was "hell."
The president divorced Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa's current home affairs minister, in 1998.
Zuma reportedly has 19 children. He is also engaged to a Durban woman, Gloria Bongi Ngema, who works for IBM -- and South African media have reported unconfirmed rumors of the president's interest in a Swazi princess.
The president's liberal politics appear at odds with his conservative African traditionalist values. In that sense, his views mirror the sometimes conflicting values of his nation's constitution, which enshrines gender equality but also protects traditional cultural practices and customary law.
Polygamy is not common among young urban middle-class South Africans, but Zuma's defense of his Zulu culture has endeared him to conservative African traditionalists.
"There are plenty of politicians who have mistresses and children that they hide so as to pretend they are monogamous. I prefer to be open. I love my wives and I am proud of my children," Zuma has said, defending polygamy in a television interview.
But his lifestyle and his campaign theme song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," are seen by some as sending an inappropriate "hyper-masculine" message. Some activists view it as old-fashioned; others see it as deeply worrying.
"We're at a complicated moment in South African history with revived traditionalism, and there's a danger of gender transformation being lost," Dean Peacock of the gender activist group Sonke Gender Justice Network said at a news conference to release a report on rape last June. "We hear men saying, 'If Jacob Zuma can have many wives, I can have many girlfriends.' The hyper-masculine rhetoric of the Zuma campaign is going to set back our work in challenging the old model of masculinity."
The report said that a quarter of the men in a South African survey admitted to committing rape. Along with promoting gender equality, Sonke Gender Justice Network works with South African men to reduce violence and rape.
Zuma was acquitted in 2006 on charges of raping a family friend, but his comments during testimony disturbed many South Africans -- including one remark that he knew his accuser wanted sex because she was wearing a short skirt.
When he took power, media speculation about who would be the "first first lady" was silenced when he took his two wives and then-fiancee Madiba to his inauguration. His spokesman announced last year that all first ladies were equal.
But there was obvious tension between Ntuli and Madiba at the opening of parliament last year, both jostling to stand at his side during the event.
The incident ignited a debate on Facebook about which woman was to blame.
"It was embarrassing and I hope it never happens again," wrote one MaKhumalo fan, Asanda Mbetshe, on Facebook in July.