South African president’s party says reports about love child make ‘mountain out of nothing’

By Donna Bryson, AP
Monday, February 1, 2010

President’s sex life makes headlines in S. Africa

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s governing party says a report that the country’s polygamist president fathered a child out of wedlock makes “a mountain out of nothing.”

The report, however, has sparked some criticism in a country where one-tenth of the population is living with the virus that causes AIDS.

Johannesburg’s Sunday Times newspaper, citing unnamed friends of the woman’s family, reported that President Jacob Zuma had a daughter in October by a woman who is not one of his three wives nor a fourth woman to whom he is engaged.

Zuma has not commented on the Times story. In an e-mail Tuesday from Ethiopia, where he had accompanied Zuma to an African Union summit, presidential spokesman Vincent Magwenya neither confirmed nor denied the report, saying: “Those who have laid judgment on the president in a matter that is entirely a private, personal issue, can they subject themselves to a public audit of their private lives?”

Politicians elsewhere would find it difficult to survive headlines about a “love child.” But Zuma’s African National Congress party swept parliamentary elections in April, ensuring him the presidency, even though he had confessed before the vote to a previous affair and has in the past married women only after having children with them.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said in a statement: “We are of the view that the media and some political commentators are making a mountain out of nothing.”

Zuma is popular in South Africa for his personal warmth and populist policies, and some here applaud him for embracing what they see as traditional African values in his personal life. Polygamy, though, is not widely practiced and is seen by some as old-fashioned — and expensive.

The Times did not name its sources, described as friends of the family of the woman reportedly involved. It quoted the woman as telling its reporter: “I don’t know what you are talking about.” Opposition parties and political commentators, though, treated the story as confirmed.

“The South African public must make its voice heard and tell President Zuma to start behaving like a president and not a gigolo,” said Mosiuoa Lekota, a former prominent ANC member. In 2008, Lekota formed COPE, a party embraced by other ex-members of the ANC who had questioned whether Zuma was fit to lead the country.

Magwenya, Zuma’s spokesman, said, “Can any of us claim with absolute certainty that we know what could have led to the circumstances that are being reported about the president’s relationship?

“The details of such circumstances belong to the realm of his private life, that all of us have and do enjoy.”

But Helen Zille, a provincial premier and leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, said the matter does have public importance.

“President Jacob Zuma’s behavior directly contradicts the government’s campaign against multiple sexual partners, and the inherent AIDS risk in having unprotected sex,” she said in a statement.

South Africa, a nation of about 50 million, has an estimated 5.7 million people infected with the AIDS-causing HIV virus, more than any other country.

Zuma’s Zulu traditions allow men to have multiple wives. But experts say having multiple, concurrent partners heightens the risk of AIDS.

In an interview, Mthembu, the ANC spokesman, said he did not know whether Zuma would speak on the newspaper report and ensuing criticism.

“If he thinks that it is a matter that he needs to inform all of us about, he will do so,” Mthembu said.

Mthembu said the ANC saw no links between ANC policies to fight AIDS and Zuma’s personal life. Zuma has been applauded for turning around AIDS policies after President Thabo Mbeki’s stance was blamed for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.

Mbeki questioned whether HIV caused AIDS and his health minister distrusted drugs developed to keep AIDS patients alive and instead promoted garlic and beet treatments. In contrast, Zuma’s government has set a target of getting 80 percent of those who need AIDS drugs on them by 2011. Zuma has called for earlier and expanded treatment for HIV-positive South Africans, and urged his countrymen to get tested for HIV.

Zuma’s turnaround on AIDS is all the more remarkable because of his personal history. In 2006, while being tried on charges of raping an HIV-positive family friend, Zuma testified he took a shower after extramarital sex to lower the risk of AIDS. He was acquitted of rape.

The 67-year-old Zuma’s personal life drew attention at a world gathering of political and business leaders last week. Asked during a Davos forum on South Africa about his “many wives,” Zuma said he believes in the “equality of women.”

That prompted the moderator, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria, to ask if Zuma loved all his wives equally.

“Absolutely,” Zuma responded, drawing laughs from the crowd.

On Monday, ANC spokesman Mthembu told The Associated Press he did not believe Zuma’s personal life was a political liability.

“The fact of the matter is that we made him president knowing very well that these are the cultural strong points that he holds,” Mthembu said. “He was running with these cultural views, and you never said, ‘No, he can’t be president.’ Are you having a change of mind as the South African populace? We do not think so.”

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