You’re the leader of South Africa, taking one of your three first ladies on a trip to India to try to boost investment ties and south-to-south cooperation, and to remind one of the world’s emerging powers that your country is an emerging power, too.
You hardly need to point out that in just a few days, you’ll be holding the World Cup soccer tournament, the ultimate coming-out party for emerging nations. And then one of your aides hands you a printout of a South African newspaper. It’s a story alleging that your first lady (the one sitting next to you) may have been having an affair with her bodyguard and became pregnant his child just before the bodyguard committed suicide.
You look at your wife. She looks at her plate of kebabs.
It’s an untimely scandal, the kind that would force almost anyone but Bill Clinton to resign. But for President Jacob Zuma, a man of the people who came to power despite a corruption scandal, an acquittal in a rape case, and despite admitting that he thought that a shower after sex would protect him from contracting HIV from an HIV-positive sex partner, who was not his spouse, scandal has become the new numbing norm.
His party has a lock on power – winning 65 percent of the vote in the last elections – so nobody expects Mr. Zuma or his party to be forced out of office. But it does potentially sap a man who already has enough big issues – such as race relations, a high crime rate, and endemic poverty – to sort out. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the percent of the vote that Zuma's party, the African National Congress, received in the last elections.]
For the record, the Zuma family contends that there is no scandal. Zuma’s nephew, Khulubuse Zuma, says that the letter – purported to be written by members of the Zuma family, and reprinted in the City Press, alleging that Nompumelelo Ntuli Zuma “cannot be called to order” and has been carrying on an affair with her own bodyguard Phinda Thomo and may be pregnant with his baby – was simply a forgery, an attempt by Zuma’s enemies to damage his reputation.
But all the denials in the world won’t make the story go away.
This weekend, brothers of MaNtuli – as the wife is known – admitted that they had presented a white goat to Zuma as an apology for an unspecified misdemeanor. And the scandal seems to be causing friction between MaNtuli and Zuma’s other wives, Thobeka Madiba and Sizakhele Khumalo.
It’s a story that seems to come custom-made for British tabloids, which love to catch politicians with their pants down. But it has also exposed a nascent feminist streak among African women columnists, some of whom are saying: “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.”
One columnist in the City Press quoted an expert at the Umsamo African Institute, Velaphi Mkhize, as saying, “Men today do not value what they have at home and if you do not give your wife the respect she deserves, she is going to look for it elsewhere.”