President Jacob Zuma, centre, cuttting his 70th birthday cake with his wives, from left Bongi Ngema-Zuma, MaNtuli Zuma, Tobeka Madiba-Zuma and MaKhumalo Zuma. Picture: Siya Duda, GCIS

Our president practises it – so far he’s had six wives, and he has four currently – but does polygamy have any place in modern life? Two young women whose grandparents had multiple spouses give their views.

Nomandla: I’m selfish. I don’t believe in sharing

My paternal grandfather had three wives – Thuleleni, Nomazulu and Thandi. But Thandi died young.

Thuleleni, my grandmother, was the first wife. She was from Bergville in KwaZulu-Natal. After my grandfather married Thuleleni, he went down to Durban to look for work. He was a carpenter.

Nomazulu was visiting relatives in Bergville, and my grandfather’s family met her. The family arranged for Thuleleni to talk to her about becoming the second wife. Thuleleni accepted their decision and spoke to Nomazulu. She then introduced Nomazulu to my grandfather.

Thuleleni had five children and Nomazulu 10. Out of 15 children, my father was the fourth child. They lived under one roof.

Eventually my grandfather managed to get separate houses for them. Thuleleni was moved to Chesterville township, and Nomazulu lived in KwaMashu. My grandfather juggled between the two homes.

Thuleleni was a natural beauty with lovely brown skin and a huge African bum. She wasn’t really a warm, affectionate person, but she was loving with my grandfather.

Nomazulu was a very kind woman, who loved children, and always had a smile on her face. She was dark and voluptuous. She liked to laugh with her hoarse voice.

My grandfather didn’t show favouritism to either wife. He loved them equally, but deep down I suppose one never really knew their situation because it was something they weren’t open about. They were just his wives and that was it.

The wives seemingly got along well and raised each other’s children.

I’m sure it wasn’t always blissful – who wouldn’t resent another woman sleeping with your husband? – but we never saw it.

It’s a pity that I never got the opportunity to ask my grandmothers how they did it. It would have been nice to know how they managed and controlled their jealousy. But it wasn’t something they talked about. When we saw them together, they would be sitting together laughing and talking. The two wives were close friends.

Polygamy in our culture is normal. We were happy. We never saw the grandmothers fight, but in those days they wouldn’t fight in front of us. At family feasts, the grannies would happily cook for us. The bond between the parents was transmitted down to the kids – we were a family united. The support was there. We stuck together.

When my grandparents got older, Nomazulu’s son bought a house next to Thuleleni and Nomazulu moved into that home. They were neighbours in their latter years. My grandfather got sick in 1988, and died the following year in hospital.

My grandmothers were heartbroken. They sat together in Thuleleni’s house. They were sad and Nomazulu was crying, but they comforted each other.

When Thuleleni’s son died, it was Nomazulu who was there for her the whole time. And when Nomazulu died in 1993, Thuleleni was truly heartbroken. She was lonely. She didn’t have that someone to talk to. They shared a husband together so that bond was deep. Thuleleni died in 2000.

We never judged our grandparents’ polygamous marriage. What we saw as kids was love.

Women in those days were different. It was their role as women to understand that a man was a man – that a man is supposed to have more than one woman. This was accepted in the black culture. In a Zulu family, a man was a man. You couldn’t stop him for doing what he wanted.

Women nowadays have choices. And many still accept polygamy. In KZN, polygamy is happening a lot. I have friends, intelligent and educated women, who are okay with it and are in polygamous relationships.

I totally reject polygamy. Yes, it worked for my grandmothers and I can respect my girlfriends for doing it. But I wouldn’t tolerate it, it’s not for me. I’m selfish. I don’t believe in sharing. I’m a jealous and possessive person.

The sex part is even worse. I could never accept my boyfriend sleeping with me and then with another woman.

However, I do have an issue with black people who all of a sudden have a problem with polygamy, which has always existed in our culture. For example, don’t judge Jacob Zuma for having his wives and being a president. He was in a polygamous marriage before he became the president. Why now is it a problem? Fault him for being a bad president if you think he is, attack him on that, but not on matters you don’t know about. Polygamy is not only in the Zulu culture, the Muslims also do it.

Not practising it is my choice. That’s the beauty of modern times.

I’ve always been strong because of my grandmothers. They taught me to be a strong woman who can walk away from a situation that I don’t like. They instilled that sense of respect for oneself. And for them to stay in a polygamous marriage was their choice. It benefited them. They had each other and their kids.

Lerato: It’s against my Christian beliefs

My maternal grandfather had two wives. My grandmother, Kefilwe, was the second wife, but he had met her first and loved her dearly.

They met in Johannesburg where Kefilwe worked as a domestic worker and my grandfather worked in the factory. But because his parents believed in arranged marriages, they were against the relationship and told him they had a “perfect” wife for him. He listened to them and married Dikeledi, who was chosen by his parents.

On their wedding day, word came in that his first child with the love of his life had died. He left while everyone was celebrating and travelled to be with the woman he loved, mourning their child.

Later on, his parents agreed to him taking Kefilwe as his second wife because he had met their condition of marrying their chosen bride first.

The wives had their own houses and yard, but they were neighbours. My grandfather shared his time with them equally. They lived in one homestead – my grandfather with his two wives, and my great-grandfather with his two wives – at a village outside Rustenburg.

The wives weren’t friends. Dikeledi gave my grandmother difficult times. She was hostile towards my grandmother. She blamed my grandmother for taking away her man’s affections.

And she hated my mother because she had the first-born, but of the second marriage.

Kefilwe had three children from a previous relationship, and she had two kids with my grandfather. The first wife had four sons and four daughters.

Dikeledi’s kids would be told not to go to Kefilwe’s house because she would bewitch them. But my grandmother never spoke badly about the other wife or discouraged her children from going there. They’d play with their siblings, but their mother would be nasty, treating them badly.

From a distance we seemed like a big happy family – we attended functions together – but we never really had a close relationship.

Some relatives took sides and treated my grandmother badly. But there was never any confrontation. My grandfather did his best to provide a stable family for all his children. He loved all of them equally.

Kefilwe contributed to the finances of both households. That’s how it was in a polygamous marriage, everything was shared. Dikeledi was a housewife.

Kefilwe was industrious, she’d make her own dresses. People would say that her household was better than the other. And when my grandmother bought herself a coal stove, it became an issue. People in the village and some family members gossiped that one wife was being looked after better than the other. The first wife eventually got a coal stove from her mother.

My grandfather was conservative, as was his family. His family was against the education of a girl child. They believed that girls got married and that was it. My grandmother was a feisty and outspoken woman, and modern in a way because she spoke her mind. She stood her ground on education and pushed for it even though her brother-in-laws would discourage her.

Dikeledi was quieter and liked to joke around.

My grandfather died in his 60s. It was only when the grandmothers were in their 70s that they got on better. They visited each other every day and became like sisters. They’d talk and help with providing food.

The grandmothers never talked about their private lives with their kids. Even though polygamous marriage was a normal thing in our family, I know my own mother wouldn’t want to be in one – she saw the difficulties with my grandmother. But she understood that it was part of their culture and wouldn’t challenge their way of life.

As my grandmother got older, she was more vocal about her issues with polygamy. Her nephew wanted to take a second wife and she discouraged him from doing it. My grandmother told him that it wouldn’t work, particularly in today’s environment. She was strongly against it financially. She said would be too difficult.

I’m personally against polygamy, really because of what my grandmother went through. She could have been a career woman.

Financially, how does one manage polygamy? It doesn’t make sense. Imagine if both wives have jobs, but one wife does better than the other. Does that mean the husband would use more of his money to better the other wife’s life? What if she’s a big spender?

As it is, a lot of families are in unofficial polygamous marriages. It happens a lot. I wouldn’t want to be in that situation. I don’t like sharing.

In this day and age you also have to worry about HIV and Aids. How do you trust what the other woman is up to? For me, it’s a health risk. It’s also against my Christian beliefs. I would never practise it. It’s uncomfortable for me to think I’d be sharing intimacy with my husband with another woman. - The Star

* All names have been changed