In South Africa, a Scandal Over All the President's Children

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Jon Hrusa / EPA

South African President Jacob Zuma at a press conference in Johannesburg

South African President Jacob Zuma has never been shy about defending his right — sometimes with a joke and a wink — to have three wives as a Zulu man, no matter how much Westerners may disapprove of his polygamous ways. But when it comes to fathering a child out of wedlock, Zuma has been much more tight-lipped — and nowhere near as comical.

Four days after a South African newspaper broke the story that he had fathered a child — his 20th — with Sonono Khoza, 39, the daughter of the owner of one of South Africa's top soccer teams, Zuma finally came clean on Wednesday that he was in fact the baby's daddy. "The matter is now between the two of us, and culturally, between the Zuma and Khoza families," he said, adding that he had made a payment of inhlawulo, a Zulu word for the compensation (traditionally a cow and goat) that a man gives a woman's family for impregnating her outside marriage. He also blasted the "harsh media exposure" on the child, saying it was "unfortunate" and "merely because of the position I occupy." "The media is in essence questioning the right of the child to exist and, fundamentally, her right to life," he added.

Since his election last April, Zuma has made short shrift of objections to his expansive appetite for women, calling his accusers culturally blinkered and claiming that, in a country of millions of single mothers, polygamy is actually responsible. When asked at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last weekend if he believed in equality for women — and whether that meant he loved all his wives equally — he replied, to laughter from the audience, "Absolutely. That's my culture. It does not take anything from me, from my political beliefs, including the belief in the equality of women." Then, in a refrain that resonates across South Africa's Zulu and Xhosa townships —as well as the whole of Africa — he added, "Some think that their culture is superior to others. That's a problem we have in the world."

The latest revelation from his private life may not prove as easy to dismiss, however. As newspapers and opposition politicians in South Africa were quick to point out, there is nothing responsible about having unprotected sex or an extramarital affair in a country with the world's biggest HIV/AIDS population, currently numbering more than 4 million. Zuma's behavior has "set us back at least a decade in the fight against HIV/AIDS," said a stern-faced Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance Party. In an editorial, the Business Day newspaper worried that Zuma's casual attitude to marriage may carry over to his view of government. "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. The Johannesburg Star mourned the humiliation of the country: "His rampant libido has made South Africa a laughingstock of the world."

Zuma, who likes to celebrate his Zulu ancestry by dancing onstage in leopard skins, is unlikely to care what the rest of the world thinks about the fact that he fathered a child out of wedlock — and so far, that unrepentant African pride has won him admirers across South Africa and beyond. The accusation that he is undermining his own AIDS policy is more damaging, though. Zuma already stoked outrage in 2006 when, on trial for rape — a charge of which he was eventually acquitted — he admitted to having unprotected sex with a woman he knew to be HIV positive. The media reported that he later said he showered to clean himself of the disease, though Zuma claims his remarks were misunderstood and that he showered after sex, not after being exposed to HIV.

Zuma's reputation was restored considerably after his election, when he reversed years of denial of the AIDS epidemic by his predecessor Thabo Mbeki — Mbeki even disputed that HIV caused AIDS — and set targets of a 50% cut in new HIV infections and 80% coverage of antiretroviral drugs in South Africa by 2011. In his statement on Wednesday, Zuma said it was "mischievous to argue that" by his actions "I have changed or undermined the government's stance on the HIV and AIDS campaign. I will not compromise on the campaign. Rather, we will intensify our efforts."

But his attempts to restore his claim to responsibility were undermined somewhat by Brian Sokutu, a spokesman for Zuma's African National Congress Party. He told the Associated Press that Zuma's relationship with Khoza was not necessarily adulterous, as he may have been intending to marry her. "There is something called courtship," he said, before adding, "And during that period, anything can happen."