11 February 2010

Pre-colonial polygamy myths


The president and precolonial polygamy myths

Jacob Dlamini, Business Day, Johannesburg, 11 February 2010

IN 2004, Peter Delius and Clive Glaser, historians at the University of the Witwatersrand, wrote an essay titled The Myths of Polygamy: A History of Extramarital and Multipartnership Sex in South Africa. Delius and Glaser used the article, published in the South African Historical Journal, to challenge claims that there was a connection between polygamy and contemporary male promiscuity in SA.

The historians said these claims were favoured by many people, from researchers, social workers to Christian activists.

They said these claims rested on two assumptions. The first was that polygamy created “an expectation of multiple sexual partnerships for men”. Second, there was a tendency to romanticise African tradition by insisting that “in the old days polygamy successfully contained male sexual urges”.

Delius and Glaser wrote their essay in the age of AIDS and their goal was to undermine facile conclusions that sought to explain SA’s AIDS pandemic on the basis of African “traditions” and “cultures”. They wanted to challenge ideas about an unchanging Africa in which people were forever stuck in the past, always doing what their ancestors and their ancestors before them had done.

Delius and Glaser used the writings of colonial administrators, missionaries and anthropologists systematically to dismantle claims of a timeless connection between contemporary and precolonial sexual practices and ideas among Africans. Naturally, Delius and Glaser were aware of the limitations of their sources. They wrote: “In spite of their cultural biases and political agendas, the value of their written observations should not be underestimated.” The sources had to be “read against the grain”, they said. “As historians we often have little else to work with and the surviving testimonies of intelligent observers need to be mined rather than dismissed.”

So what did their mining of these sources yield? What did their reading against the grain find? Delius and Glaser argued that while polygamy was “very common” in precolonial African societies, it was “a minority activity”.

They also argued that there was “a great deal” of sex outside of marriage in precolonial Africa. “A numerically significant class of women lived in their fathers’ homesteads — widows, divorcees, unmarried mothers — who essentially controlled their own sexuality and experienced only mild opprobrium. Their sexual partners included unmarried men and both monogamously and polygamously married men.”

According to Delius and Glaser, marriage in precolonial African societies “was more about rights to offspring, transaction of cattle and the organisation of homestead labour than about the control of sexuality”. When David Livingstone, the explorer, visited a Tswana chieftainship named Bakaa, he recorded the following: of 278 married men he found, 157 were monogamous; 94 had two wives each; 25 had three wives each, and two had four wives each. This yielded a polygamy rate of 43%.

Livingstone was of course not the only European to notice this. A number of administrators, missionaries and anthropologists found that while every African man was allowed in theory to take more than one wife, in fact, only those with the means to do so could afford to turn this theoretical entitlement into reality. Many commoners simply did not have the economic means to take more than one wife.

According to Delius and Glaser, in some African societies some men did not even take wives at all. It was also common for men to marry late, while women could marry as soon as they reached puberty. This obviously presented all kinds of problems. People do not stop being sexual beings simply because they are poor. Sexual urges do no disappear when people are destitute.

It is in this context that we must understand the prevalence of sex outside of marriage in precolonial Africa. So in some societies, such as the Sotho, young unmarried men would be given the “privilege” of being with their uncles’ wives. The practice was derived from a custom whereby the Sotho king gave some men in his kingdom the “privilege” to water his gardens, that is, have sexual relations with his junior wives.

According to some of the sources that are quoted by Delius and Glaser, while many societies in precolonial Africa tolerated infidelity without necessarily encouraging it, the Zulus seemed to be the exception. They tended to be less tolerant of infidelity than the Xhosas, for example.

Delius and Glaser say: “The idea that polygamous marriage provided a comprehensive context for male sexuality in precolonial African societies is … less than plausible.” Their essay was written six years ago and in response to vacuous claims about the origins of SA’s HIV/AIDS crisis. It was also written long before the escapades of SA’s most notorious polygamist dominated the news. Still, it is fascinating to read the essay in light of President Jacob Zuma ’s latest shenanigans. Rereading the essay helped me to understand Zuma’s apology for fathering a child with a friend’s daughter.

Zuma’s argument has always been that polygamy is more honest and that it is an ancient African custom. Well, the practice might be honest but he is not, as we know all too well. Yes, it is true that there was polygamy in precolonial Africa but it was, as Delius and Glaser argue, “a minority activity”. Zuma, a commoner son of commoner parents, has appropriated for himself a “privilege” that used to be the preserve of men of wealth and power.

We could of course say that this is a classic case of a local boy done good. Except we know that Zuma was helping himself to this “privilege” even when he did not have the means — back when one Schabir Shaik was paying for everything for Zuma, from children’s school fees to groceries.

  • Dlamini is author of Native Nostalgia (Jacana 2009)