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Why Jacob Zuma's infidelity carries a small political price

South African President Jacob Zuma admitted this week to having a 'love child' out of wedlock with a mistress. While the media and opposition politicians are critical of his infidelity, South Africa's black majority electorate accepts that Zulu culture includes polygamy.

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This clash – played out in the news media -- reflects the disaffection of the white minority that didn’t vote for the ANC, and for a small but growing number of middle-class blacks who are drifting away from the ANC. Leaders of smaller parties, may say, as Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille did this week, that the president should “apologize and act to better embody the values he advocates for other South Africans,” but for the time being, they are not calling for Zuma’s resignation.

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Non-issue or not, Zuma’s personal and sexual behavior have been big news for the better part of a decade. In 2005, Zuma faced charges, and in 2006 was acquitted, of raping the daughter of a close friend. Testimony from that trial – including his assertion that he didn’t worry about contracting HIV from the HIV-positive woman he had sex with, because he had taken a shower – continues to follow Zuma. One cartoonist portrayed him with a shower-head permanently hovering, like a halo.

In the lead-up to the March 2009 elections, Zuma’s marriage to two more women horrified some South Africans. But polygamy is allowed under Zulu culture, and Zulus are the single largest ethnic group in the country. So, his mulitple wives cost him little – if any –support from the poor black majority who make up the ANC’s base.

For many black voters, Zuma is a man who shares the poor upbringing and traditional culture of the common man. The only thing that would likely be counted against Zuma and the ANC, for this voting block, is the failure of the ANC to create enough jobs and housing to uplift their lives. Counting wives and children -- (now three wives and 20 children, with a fiancée waiting in the wings) may be an obsession for South Africa’s mainly white-owned media, but it only brings chuckles from the vast majority who look to the ANC as their political and economic savior.

For his part, Zuma reacted sharply to media coverage of what he considers a “personal matter.”

“I confirm that I have a relationship with Ms. Sonono Khoza,” he told reporters yesterday. “I said during World AIDS Day that we must all take personal responsibility for our actions. I have done so.”

But then he accused the media of violating the rights of his 20th child to privacy. “Our Constitution and our laws require us to protect children from harmful public exposure. The Constitution states that it is inappropriate to place at risk, the child’s well-being, physical or mental health, spiritual, moral or social development.”

He also rejected assertions that his sexual activities undermined his own message to fight the spread of AIDS. “I will not compromise on the campaign. Rather we will intensify our efforts to promote prevention, treatment, research and the fight against the stigma attached to the epidemic.”