Zuma's Woes: 3 Wives, 1 Fiance and an Out-of-Wedlock Child

South African president has plenty of problems politically and personal.

February 8, 2010, 5:27 PM

NAIROBI, Kenya Feb. 8, 2010— -- Sex scandals involving powerful men like Tiger Woods and John Edwards have dominated American headlines last few weeks. But halfway around the world in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma is embroiled in his own sex scandal, complete with "baby mama drama."

In Zuma's case, however, the question isn't whether he cheated on his wife -- but his wives.

The president has three first ladies, and soon to be a fourth, but it's not the fact that he's married to several women at once which has outraged the country. It's the revelation that Zuma, 67, has fathered an out of wedlock child.

The baby girl, now 4 months old, is Zuma's child with the daughter of a political ally and friend, who is also a power player in the 2010 World Cup preparations. The mother is not one of his wives, or even the woman he is engaged to, and that is what many South Africans find objectionable.

"Polygamy is not uncommon in Africa," Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an Africa analyst for New York-based policy think tank Eurasia Group, tells ABC News. " But what South Africans seem to be saying is 'we are fine with the fact that he has three wives, we are fine with that. But if he has another child, it's a sign he is unable to control his passions."

What started as attacks by the South African political elite, which has never really accepted Zuma, a man with limited education and a populist swagger, quickly took hold with the masses as well. As criticism grew last week, opposition politicians called for the president to go to "sex rehab," calling him the "gigolo president" among other unflattering characterizations.

South Africa's largest financial daily newspaper, Business Day, questioned whether Zuma was taking his job seriously.

"If the president is unable to respect social boundaries such as those created through marriage, how can he be trusted to respect the boundaries erected in terms of the national constitution's checks and balances?" the paper asked.

When the child was first revealed, the Zuma administration refused to comment, calling the matter a personal issue. By the weekend a public apology was issued.

Sex Scandal Roils South Africa Politics

"I deeply regret the pain that I caused my family, the African National Congress, and South Africans in general," Zuma said in a statement.

Spio-Garbrah says the apology may have been politically smart to help deflect attention from the scandal, but that it counters the philosophy Zuma publicly upholds.

"He's always said that his personal life is his business. That [polygamy] is Zulu tradition and the South African constitution supports that," says Spio-Garbrah. "But by apologizing, he has drawn a distinction between his three wives and this child he's had out of wedlock."

This isn't the first sex scandal involving Jacob Zuma. In 2006, he was tried and acquitted for raping an HIV -positive woman. During the trial it was revealed that he did not use protection, saying that he showered after having sex as way to keep himself from becoming infected.

South Africa has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world. Ironically, many health officials have applauded the president's policies regarding the virus since he took office last year. His predecessor Thabo Mbeki, while not known for personal scandals, is largely considered to have had ineffective HIV/AIDS policies.

Opposition politicians say that this latest scandal threatens to undermine Zuma's credibility fighting HIV/AIDS. Helen Zille, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance party, told reporters that Zuma's behavior set the country back "at least a decade" in fighting the disease.

But Spio-Garbrah thinks the common man's disdain for Zuma's latest scandal is less about sex and more about economics. South Africa has an unemployment rate upwards of 30 percent. In some communities the percentage is even higher. The idea that a president would spend more time dealing with sex scandals instead of fixing the country's economic woes does not sit well with many people, says Spio-Garbrah.

"Zuma has always presented himself as the common man. The problem for many South Africans is 'if half of us are unemployed and the rest are barely surviving, how come you can afford to have 19 children, three wives and one girlfriend?'" he says. "For someone who doesn't have job, who can't even afford to feed his family, for Zuma to be going around and fathering children left, right and center would irk such a person."

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