SOUTH AFRICA: President Jacob Zuma, 68, marries wife # 5; How does one get a divorce in a polygamous society?

Looking at South African President Jacob Zuma, it may be hard to fathom what his appeal is to all these wives he’s amassing. Photos of his traditional Zulu wedding in the Village of NKandla, South Africa, to his fifth wife, Tobeka Madiba, have hit the international press and the event was truly a show-stopper, a carnival that included tribal dancers zuluand other ethnic/local entertainment. In fact, one can view the slide show of the spectacle here
For Westerners and those living off continent, the photos may seem garish, if not slightly embarrassing, and even “primitive” when you consider he is the leader of a major developing economy. But to the People of South Africa, this is nothing out of the ordinary to see their president in traditional tribal garb, marrying his fifth wife in a joyous celebration that includes over 500 invited guests and villagers bussed in for the nuptial fete.
Polygamy is perfectly legal in South Africa and many Zulus are proud polygamists and proud of their president.
The president gets a lot of criticism in particular because of the HIV/AIDs epidemic that continues to ravage the region. What sort of message does he send by living a life with multiple sexual partners albeit one that is predicated on the marital bond, people continue to ask? Perhaps it is not a totally unreasonable question, considering prior to marriage, Mr. Zuma had already fathered 4 children with his new bride, and altogether, he has 19 children with numerous women – most conceived while he was having sexual relations with other women. How can he be absolutely sure that these women were all virgins and that he is the only man they slept with? For sure, they know that they are not the only women he slept with. It is also possible that he slept with women who are not wives. And who did these women sleep with? The permutations are staggering when one thinks about it objectively.  
The international press also had a field day about the fact that several goats and cows were “slaughtered” for the event. Although, in defense of Mr. Zuma, “slaughtering animals” is no different from any other wedding in the West where guests routinely eat “slaughtered” cows, pigs, fish and poultry in their fancy receptions in Palm Beach, Hollywood and the Hamptons and in major European capitals such as London, Paris and Rome. Indeed, most of the high society weddings of billionaires the world over, almost always involve the slaughtering and butchering of helpless animals.
I was asked to comment on the custody and divorce issues surrounding Mr. Zuma. While I am not a lawyer in South Africa or else where, I believe these to be facts: that Mr. Zuma has married five women in his life and he is engaged to a sixth woman at this time. He has 19 children between all of his wives. He has been very open about how proud he is of his children, and if you read the international press reports, there is a wonderful quote from Mr. Zuma:

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…” WSJ, Reuters.

It is safe to say Mr. Zuma enjoys custody of all 19 of his children and that he supports them as any responsible father should. He cannot be accused of running away from his duties as a father. In South Africa, especially in Mr. Zuma’s culture, if there is a divorce, the father retains custodial rights to his children.
With respect to his marital situation, I believe Mr. Zuma has two other wives on the payroll at the moment and both live in huts in his native village. The first wife, a heavy-set farm-worker named Sizakele Khumalo- Zuma, he married way back in the 1970’s in exchange for 11 cows. It is not clear that Mr. Zuma and Ms. Khumalo-Zuma continue to have marital relations, aka, sex, but they are great friends and still very much “married.” It is said that she will be first lady and occupy the official presidential residence in Pretoria shortly.
Another of his wives, Kate Mantsho-Zuma committed suicide. According to a Wall Street Journal report, in her suicide note Ms. Mantsho-Zuma declared, “Being married to Jacob was like 24 years of hell.”
And a third wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli, he married in 2008. So far he has only divorced one wife, his home affairs minister. Her name is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and he divorced her in 1998.
So how does one obtain a divorce in a polygamous society such as South Africa? Well, South Africa has many different clans and tribes. The Zulus, a polygamous tribe, are the main ethnic group in South Africa. South African Zulus get divorced sometimes, even if they are in a polygamous situation, and their divorce would be pursuant to tribal customs and traditions. But the court would have to grant the divorce based on their agreement.
It is interesting to note that  only men can live polygamously – meaning that women are not allowed to have more than one husband pursuant to Zulu law. Does the man have the final say as far as a divorce the way it is in some Arab countries? Arguably, yes. If the man absolutely refuses to agree to a Zulu divorce, there will be no divorce. Usually the wife has to return her dowry or lobola to the husband’s family after a Zulu divorce. The court will decide issues of custody, alimony and maintenance after a Zulu divorce just like a civil divorce if there is no agreement. But usually the parties are very modest and do not have lavish possessions the way they do in the West. It could be a matter of equitably distributing a cow, for example.
Also in South Africa, there is a civil divorce which mimics the civil divorce of the West and Europe. The parties would have to declare a “ground” for the divorce and usually that can be anything from adultery, to unconsciousness, to insanity. There are other means of divorce as well.
Parties can get divorced in either the family court of South Africa, or the High Court of South Africa.
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