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.

Jon Black / AP
South African President Jacob Zuma, enters the UN Conference Hall during the closing ceremony, Tuesday, for the 14th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union.

A sitting president cheats on his wife with another woman, admits to the press that he has a “love-child,” and he still keeps his job.

No, this isn’t Europe. We're talking about South African President Jacob Zuma, and his admission this week to having a child out of wedlock with a mistress. While grabbing headlines, his infidelity is unlikely to have any political implications either for Mr. Zuma or for his ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). But it does reveal something about the character of this country’s politics and its electorate.

“I really don’t think this will change a single vote,” says Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, an initiative of Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. “In South Africa, it’s about identity politics. It’s big-issue politics. Although this is a socially conservative society, the political fault lines are so deep and so clearly drawn that personal and sexual morality becomes a non-issue.”

With 65.9 percent of the vote in the 2009 elections, President Zuma is certainly in no danger of losing either his job or his party’s hold on power. But the latest revelation – printed on the front pages of nearly every South African newspaper, and decried by almost all the opposition parties – is an interesting window on South Africa’s sharply divided political culture. It could reveal how the ANC and its leader responds to criticism and negative media coverage, setting the tone for the president’s relations with news media for the rest of his term in office.

Zuma’s private behavior, suggest critics, might undermine the government’s efforts to fight the spread of HIV – South Africa already has the highest number of citizens infected with the disease, at 5.4 million. But his actions are far from likely to lead to the sort of 1998-99 impeachment effort that President Clinton faced over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, or to lead to his resignation, as happened with Britain’s Defense Minister John Profumo in 1963.

“The way such a scandal is handled is in part shaped by the political character of the country,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. “In France, this is not an issue. To some extent in Italy, this is not an issue. But in South Africa, we don’t have a common political culture, we have a clash of political cultures.”

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.

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.”

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