A bill to allow polygamy adopted by the South African government has sparked outrage in the country’s conservative circles.
The anger came as no surprise to Coles Machuco, one of the academics concerned with the issue, who told the BBC that the objection was due to a desire to “dominate” women.
“African societies are not yet ready for true equality, and we don’t know what to do with out-of-control women,” he added.
South Africa has one of the most liberal constitutions in place, which allows same-sex marriage for all citizens, both men and women, as well as polygamy for men.
One of the most prominent opponents of the proposed polygamy law is the well-known businessman and television personality, Moussa Msliko, who is married to four women.
“It will destroy our culture. What about the children of these people? How will they register in personal status restrictions?” said Mslikow.
“A woman cannot play the role of a man, this is something we have not heard of before. Will a woman pay the dowry to the man? Will the man bear her last name?” added Msiliko, who is starring in a reality TV show dealing with the issue of polygamy.
Machuko studied polyandry in his home country, Zimbabwe, and spoke to 20 women and 45 couples involved in such relationships, even though this type of marriage is a taboo in society and is not permitted by law.
“Polygamy, which is rejected by many sects in society, has become a secret practice, and is very similar to the secrecy of Masonic groups,” said academic Collis Machuko.
“When they encounter someone they don’t trust or know, they immediately deny the existence of this type of marriage, to avoid reprisals and persecution,” he added.
The polyandrymen who took part in the Machuco study do not reside in the same places. But they are bound by what this kind of bond imposes on them, and they announce their marriage only among themselves.
“One of the wives decided to be a polyandry wife when she was in the sixth grade (12 years) when she studied how the queen bee in the hive marries several husbands,” Machuko continued.
After reaching puberty, she began having sex with a number of men who all knew each other.
The academic researcher pointed out that “four of the nine husbands of this wife belong to the first batch of friends I had sex with.”
The wife initiates this type of marriage by establishing a relationship with a man and then inviting other men to participate in order to achieve polyandry. Some of these men pay the dowry to the wife while others share the cost of living. The wife shall have the right to remove any of her husbands from this union if she sees that it spoils her relationship with the rest of the husbands.
Machuco emphasized that love is the main reason why most of the men he interviewed agreed to engage in a polyandrous relationship, as they did not want to risk losing their wives.
Some of these husbands indicated that they do not achieve sexual gratification for their wives, which leads them to agree to polygamy in order to avoid divorce or the entry of their wives into intimate relationships that they do not know anything about.
Another reason is poor fertility. Some men who accept polyandry agree to this so that their wives can have children. In this way, husbands “save face” in front of society and also avoid being labeled “masculine” by society, according to Machucho.
The anger of the clergy
Machuko said he did not know if there was polygamy in South Africa, but human rights activists called on the government to enact a law allowing such unions in favor of promoting principles of equality and choice, just as the current law allows polygamy.
The government included this proposed law in the document, officially known as the Green Paper, and presented it for societal dialogue as part of its efforts to achieve the largest reform of marriage laws since the end of white minority rule in 1994.
“It is important to remember that the Green Document aims to uphold human rights and we cannot lose sight of this,” said Charlene May, a human rights activist with the Women’s Legal Center.
“We cannot refuse legal reform because it goes against patriarchal views prevailing in society,” she added.
The proposed law document also included legal recognition of Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Rastafari marriages.
While these denominations welcomed the proposed legislation, clerics, including members of Parliament, condemned the polygamy proposal.
Reverend Kenneth Micho, leader of the opposition African Democratic Party, said the proposal would “destroy society”.
He added, “There will come a time when the man will say to the wife ‘You spent more time with that man’ and a conflict will erupt between the two men.”
“You can imagine when a child is born, we will need more DNA analysis to identify the father,” said Ganiv Hendricks, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party.
Musa Msiliko urged his citizens not to “extremise” in addressing the principle of equality, saying: “Just because there is something in the constitution, it does not mean that this thing will necessarily be in our interest.”
When asked why there is a difference between a woman and a man in this regard, given that he is married to four women, Msliku replied: Some have called me a hypocrite because of my marriages, but now I prefer to talk rather than remain silent.
“All I can say is that this is not African. We cannot change our identity,” he added.
But Machuko noted that polygamy was permitted in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria, and the law still allows it in Gabon.
The academic concerned with this issue said: “After the entry of Christianity and colonialism to Africa, the role and status of women declined. There is no longer any equality between men and women. Marriage has become one of the tools used to establish a class society.”
He pointed out that the concerns about the future of children as a result of polyandry are linked to the concepts of the patriarchal society.
He added: “The issue of children is very simple, the identity of the child’s father is of no importance at all because in the end these children are the children of the family.”