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S.Africa’s polygamous leader Zuma to wed for sixth time

South African President Jacob Zuma will take a fourth wife this weekend in the 70-year-old polygamist’s sixth marriage which has ignited new debate over traditions and excess in modern Africa.

The former freedom fighter, who is equally comfortable in an expertly fitted suit or animal skins, will tie the knot with long-time fiancee businesswoman Bongi Ngema at his rural village in eastern Zululand.

“It’s a private ceremony. I just know that it’s over the weekend — don’t have more details,” said presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj.

The wedding will be Zuma’s third in just over four years and the second since coming to power in 2009 as the country’s first president with multiple wives, something that is legal under liberal post-apartheid laws.

Recent ceremonies have featured the father of 21 dancing in leopard hides with a Zulu warrior’s shield, showcasing the lifestyle that often overshadows his globetrotting work at the helm of Africa’s most developed economy.

His office quickly released a statement after weekend press splashed the upcoming nuptials — with headlines like “Zuma to marry – again!” — to say he will foot the bill and that his wives live in private homes.

One of his wives has died, and another — home affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — divorced him.

But the state had to nearly double the presidency’s spousal budget to more than two million dollars after he took office.

The wives’ benefits include a personal secretary and researcher, domestic and international travel, equipment, and a daily allowance during official trips.

While having no specific roles or responsibilities, they are expected to support the president at state and official functions, with Ngema accompanying him to France last year.

“The official line is that expenditure isn’t greater because there are more wives but actually if you look at the figures the expenditure has gone up,” said Lucy Holbron, South African Institute of Race Relations research manager.

“It does fit into the picture of overall wasteful expenditure in government and I think that’s probably why there’s a bigger issue around it — less so because of it being a polygamous relationship.”

Popular daily newspaper the Sowetan, in an editorial headlined “Hoping it’s Zuma’s last”, said South Africans had accepted their president being a polygamist but cautioned on the signals that his “elastic family” sent.

“His conduct could give the impression he is a man whose interests are more in pleasure than on matters that affect the nation he governs,” it said Wednesday.

While Zuma’s polygamy predated the discovery of AIDS, his relationships and out-of-wedlock children clash with government health campaigns calling for couples to remain faithful against rampant HIV infections.

He drew heavy fire in 2010 when it emerged that he had an out-of-wedlock child, after having defended his large family by criticising men who hide mistresses and children on the pretence of monogamy.

“He may be sending a message that we, as a nation, should follow what he says, not what he does. Hardly exemplary. But the bigger problem with his marriages is that taxpayers have to finance some of their expenses,” said the Sowetan.

“It boggles the national psyche how he manages to give his children the attention they deserve” while also representing a complex emerging economy, it added.

Some commentators have highlighted the jarring differences between struggling South Africans and their high-living elite, citing lavish birthday bashes for Zuma and his third wife.

“For two weekends in a row the country’s First Family has hogged front pages with pictures of them and their associates partying up a storm,” wrote The Times political editor S’Thembiso Msomi.

“They are likely to do so once again at the weekend when President Jacob Zuma finally formalises his marriage to Bongi Ngema.”