Outcry over South Africa’s proposal for multiple husbands

A wedding cake with figures of a bride and three grooms

A proposal by the South African government to legalize polyandry – when a woman has more than one husband at the same time – has sparked howls of protest from conservative circles.

This does not come as a surprise to Professor Collis Machoko, a renowned scientist in the field.

The objections are about “control,” he told the BBC. “African societies are not ready for real equality. We don’t know what to do with women we cannot control.”

South Africa has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, which includes same-sex marriages for all and polygamy for men.

The businessman and TV personality Musa Mseleku, who has four wives, is one of the opponents of polyandry.

“That will destroy the African culture. What about these people’s children? asks Mr. Mseleku, who is on a South African reality TV show, about his polygamous family.

“The woman cannot take on the role of the man now. It is unheard of. Will the woman now pay lobola? [bride price] for the man. Is the man expected to take her last name? “

Secret unions

Prof. Machoko researched polyandry in his native country – neighboring Zimbabwe. He spoke to 20 wives and 45 co-husbands who practiced it, although such marriages are socially taboo and not legally recognized.

“Polyandry has been forced underground because it is shunned by parts of society. The secrecy is similar to that of Freemasons,” he said.

“When confronted with someone they don’t trust or know, they even deny that such a marriage exists. All of this out of fear of reprisals and persecution.”

Musa Mseleku surrounded by his four wives

Reality TV personality and polygamist Musa Mseleku (C) sees polyandry as “un-African”

The participants in Prof. Machoko’s study all lived separately, but were committed to the polyandric association and were open to each other.

“One woman nurtured the idea of ​​wanting to be a polyandric woman when she was in sixth grade.” [aged around 12 years] after learning how the queen bee houses many bee co-husbands in a beehive, “said the professor.

The story goes on

As she grew up, she started having sex with multiple partners, all of which were aware.

“Four of her current nine co-husbands were in this first group of friends.”

In polyandry, the woman often initiates relationships and invites husbands to join their union. Some pay the bride price, others choose to contribute to their livelihood. She has the power to remove a co-husband if she believes he is destabilizing her other relationships.

Prof. Machoko said love was the main reason the men he interviewed agreed to be co-husbands. They didn’t want to risk losing their wife.

Some men also pointed out that they did not sexually satisfy their wives and agreed to a husband’s suggestion to avoid divorce or affairs.

Another reason was infertility – some men agreed that the woman take another husband so that she could have children. In this way, the men “saved face” in public and escaped stigmatization as “masculinized”.

Cleric upset

Prof. Machoko said he knew nothing about polyandric marriages in South Africa. Still, gender rights activists have urged the government to legalize such unions in the interests of equality and freedom of choice, as the law currently allows a man to have more than one woman.

"We cannot oppose legal reform because it calls into question certain patriarchal views in our society"", Source: Charlene May, source description: Women's Rights Center, image:

“We cannot reject a legal reform because it calls into question certain patriarchal views in our society” “, source: Charlene May, source description: Women’s Legal Center, image:

Their proposal was incorporated into a document – officially known as the Green Paper – that the government released for public comment as it embarked on the largest overhaul of marriage laws since the end of white minority rule in 1994.

“It’s important to remember that this Green Paper is about protecting human rights, and we can’t lose sight of that,” said Charlene May, an attorney at the Women’s Legal Center, a law firm that advocates women’s rights.

“We cannot reject a legal reform because it calls into question certain patriarchal views in our society.”

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The document also proposes legal recognition of Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Rastafarian marriages.

While this was largely welcomed by the communities concerned, the proposal to legalize polyandry has been condemned by clerics who hold seats in parliament.

The leader of the opposition African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Reverend Kenneth Meshoe, said it would “destroy society”.

“There will come a time when one of the men will say, ‘You spend most of your time with this man and not me’ – and there will be conflict between the two men,” he added.

For his part, Al-Jamah Islamic Party leader Ganief Hendricks said, “You can imagine that when a child is born, more DNA tests are required to find out who the father is.”

“Children of the family”

As for Mr Mseleku, he urged South Africans not to take the principle of equality “too far”.

“Just because something is in the Constitution doesn’t mean it’s good for us.”

A person with a DNA test

Polyandry critics say children in such facilities would need DNA tests to find out who their father was

When asked why it should be different with women, since he has four wives, he replied: “I have been called a hypocrite because of my marriages, but now I would rather speak than remain silent.

“All I can say is that this is un-African. We can’t change who we are.”

But Prof. Machoko said polyandry was once practiced in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria and is still practiced in Gabon where the law allows it.

“With the rise of Christianity and colonization, the role of women was diminished. They were no longer equal. Marriage became one of the tools for building hierarchies.”

Prof. Machoko said concern about children born of polyandric marriage is rooted in patriarchy.

“The question of children is simple. All children born of this relationship are the children of the family.”

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