Polyandry: The Fight for South African Women to Have the Same Marriage Rights as Men

Image: Cornelia Ng via Unsplash

In May, the South African Department of Home Affairs submitted a proposal which suggested that polyandry, the marriage between one woman and multiple men, could be legalised. This is an important issue in South Africa, as polygyny, the marriage between a man and multiple women, is already legal. If passed, this legislation would enable women in South Africa to have the same marriage rights as men, increasing gender equality in the region.

If men can do it, so can women

Polygyny, whilst not the norm in South Africa, is increasingly prominent within the South African government and media. At one point, former South African president Jacob Zuma, who left office in 2017, was reported to have six wives. Uthando Ns’thembu, also known as ‘Love and Polygamy’, is a popular TV show promoting polygyny, showcasing the life of a man and his four wives. So, as a practice that is visible in politics and the media, why is polygamy exclusively for men?

Despite the presence of polygny, the legalisation of polyandry is a polarising debate in South Africa, particularly on social media. Gender equality activists, whilst not all in favour of polygamous marriages, mainly support the legalisation of polyandry in order to equalise the country’s biased marriage laws. Meanwhile, predominantly-male conservatives are staunchly against legalising polyandry, wanting to maintain polygamy as a practice exclusively for men.

The hypocritical face of polygyny

One of polyandry’s loudest opponents is the star of Uthando Ns’thembu, Musa Mseleku. In videos posted to his YouTube and Facebook accounts, Mseleku argues that polyandry should not be legalised as it would cause too many issues. He believes that it would lead to significant ‘commotion and confusion’ over a child’s paternity, as there would be more than one potential father. He also questions whether it would even be practical, particularly concerning the matter of bride prices. A bride price or ‘lobola’ is when the groom's family gives the bride's family money or cattle in exchange for their daughter’s hand in marriage. It is common across South Africa, but if a woman were to marry multiple men, would she have to pay the ‘bride’ price instead?

Mseleku engages in polygamy and has four wives and ten children. Ironically, many of the most vocal polyandry opponents are men who practice polygyny themselves. According to Professor Collis Machoko, a researcher who specialises in polygamy, their objections are centred around their need to ‘control’ women. If women were to gain the same marriage rights as them, they would lose their control. This hypocrisy stems from the patriarchy and is not unique to the polyandry debate. In other gender equality debates, conservative men staunchly defend their rights to keep certain privileges all to themselves in order to maintain control over women. This ensures that women are continually treated as second-class citizens.

In comparison to Mseleku, Charlene May, a gender activist at the Women’s Legal Centre, argues that the legalization of polyandry is necessary in order to uphold gender equality. She contends that “we cannot reject law reform because it challenges certain patriarchal views in our society”. Practices such as a woman taking her husband’s name, a groom paying a bride price, and men attempting to govern women’s bodies and sexuality are all steeped in the patriarchy. As such, they should not prevent the advancement of gender equality.

Not all men

Whilst The Daily Maverick declared that ‘mostly men are up in arms’ over polyandry, it is not only men that have voiced their opposition. Dr Nokuzola Mndende, a renowned female cultural activist, contends that polyandry is “not a question of gender equality, it’s a question of nature.” As women are only able to bear one man’s child at a time, they “cannot afford to have more husbands”. Whilst polygny enables men to sire offspring with multiple women at once, women can only have one man’s child at a time, once every nine months, regardless of whether she engages in polyandry. So polygyny can increase the total number of offspring a man produces, but polyandry does not typically increase the number of children a woman has.

This debate has also been taken up by politicians. Ganief Hendricks, leader of Al Jama-ah, South Africa’s only Muslim political party, argued in parliament that polyandry would merely increase the promiscuity of women. As reported by Sowetan Live, Hendricks later stated that whilst gender activists want to hopefully have a female president one day, wanting women to have multiple husbands is ‘taking it too far’. In response to Hendricks’ comments in parliament, member of parliament for the Democratic Alliance, Natasha Mazzone expressed outrage, declaring that Hendricks had insulted “every woman in this country”.

Is polyandry too ‘un-African’ for South Africa?

Hendricks and other religious leaders that the Department of Home Affairs consulted with, also argued that polyandry is ‘un-African’ and would be harmful to African culture. This is unlike polygyny, which they deem inherent to Africa. There is certainly a degree of truth to this, as according to the Department of Home Affairs, after being colonised South Africans were forced into abandoning their own marriage practices, some of which involved polygamy. They were subsequently made to accept and obey European marriage laws and ideals. However, these opponents fail to demonstrate that polyandry was not present in Africa pre-colonisation, and therefore can’t fully prove that it is ‘un-African’.

Whilst it is difficult to objectively determine whether polyandry is inherent to Africa, it is useful to consider where polyandry is currently practiced. It is present in some Asian communities, notably in Tibet and India. However, the only country in the world where polyandry is currently legal is Gabon, a central African country. It is also practiced in other parts of Africa, including Zimbabwe and Kenya, although it is not legally recognised. Whilst polyandry may not be inherently African, it is certainly not a colonial import.

A ‘spouse’ and their many ‘spouses’

It is also crucial to highlight that this proposal is not only vital for increasing gender equality, but also for improving LGBTQ+ marriage rights. Under current South African law, polygamy is only legal for heterosexual men and does not apply to homosexual relationships; a man cannot legally have multiple husbands, only multiple wives. In addition to the legalisation of polyandry, this green paper suggests marriage laws in South Africa could become gender neutral, for both monogamous and polygamous marriages. A person, regardless of gender, could have multiple spouses, of any gender. Therefore, if passed, this proposal would mean that women and members of the LGBTQ+ community would have the same marriage rights as heterosexual men. No more wives or husbands. Just spouses.

The next step towards a polyamorous world?

This green paper could also be a significant step towards a pro-polyamory world. Polyamorous relationships, where people engage in relationships with multiple people at a time, are becoming increasingly accepted by society. As such, the concept of a monogamous marriage is becoming outdated, and there are increasing calls for adaptations to marriage laws in order to keep up with changing ideals. In particular, whilst polyamory gains traction, it needs to be done in a way that promotes gender equality and does not result in polyamory being acceptable for men only. Therefore, in a country like South Africa, where polygyny is legal, the legalisation of polyandry may be the natural next step towards an equitable, polyamory-accepting world.