By Lerato Mbele*
Wearing a resplendent burgundy and orange “asheke” suit from Nigeria, Bongi Ngema-Zuma, South African President Jacob Zuma’s fourth wife, is the picture of the “Afropolitan” woman – worldly, tech-savvy and accomplished.
While waiting for the BBC team to rearrange the living-room to suit our broadcast needs, she concludes her Christmas shopping online in Mahlambandlovu, the official residence of the president perched on the hills of Pretoria.
Before assuming official duties as a presidential spouse, Mrs Ngema-Zuma was a professional in accounting and finance.
But at heart she is a conservative Zulu traditionalist. When asked about this apparent contradiction she says: “It depends on how you define a modern woman, I am a Zulu woman first and foremost.”
With those words her personal philosophy is revealed, she says that entering into a polygamous marriage was a personal choice.
The conviction with which she expresses herself almost negates the perception that women in polygamous relationships are weak or manipulated.
When questioned about why she would share the president with three other women, she describes his ability to see each woman as an independent person.
She insists that in this kind of relationship “a man does not sit in the middle with five (or 10) women around him. We each have a relationship with this man.”
However, given the innuendo and rumours surrounding Mr Zuma, choosing to love and marry the South African president could not have been an easy choice.
Yet Mrs Zuma chooses to focus on the positive aspects, describing him as ” a good man” who is “always content”.
The women who have chosen to marry President Zuma remain an enigma in modern-day South Africa.
They seem to live in two contradictory worlds where the aspirations of a new democracy seem to clash with values of the old society.
South Africa is one of the 28 African countries to have ratified the African Union’s protocol on women’s rights, which refers to polygamy as a “harmful practice” to be eliminated.
Yet the newest Mrs Zuma does not believe that polygamy is harmful to her person or social standing.
She says the president has allowed her to maintain a career and remain a private citizen even though she is now under intense public scrutiny.
The Zumas were officially married in April 2012, though she began official duties as first lady long before that.
She has accompanied the president on state visits to China, the US and France, where she hobnobbed with foreign leaders. In itself that is quite revealing.
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As a former consultant to blue chip companies in IT and finance, Mrs Ngema-Zuma seems comfortable in cosmopolitan settings and has opinions about a range of subjects from health to economics.
She established the Foundation for Diabetes Awareness, which has led to her being a member of the Global Business Council.
She draws similarities between her work in raising awareness on diabetes and obesity to the work that her US counterpart Michelle Obama is doing on child-related programmes.
The president often seeks her counsel and she gives it frankly, citing the incidence of teen pregnancy and high-school drop-outs as indicative of failures within South Africa’s public education system.
Mrs Ngema-Zuma believes that theirs is a relationship of equals. “He supports what I do, we talk about his work, we talk about my work, we discuss our family issues. I’m enjoying the ride.”
The World Economic Forum ranks South Africa 14th out of 135 countries in its Gender Gap Report.
The country has made great strides because of policies such as affirmative action and gender equality laws.
In that regard, Mrs Ngema-Zuma fits the mould of the new South Africa, where 28% of senior managers are women.
However, for those critical of her relationship she is seemingly a progressive woman in a regressive personal environment.
Having spoken to her at length, it becomes obvious that the real challenge for her is not the relationship but the reputation.
President Zuma seems to have a personality that is larger than life. He is a political tactician who has used song, dance and populist rhetoric to woo supporters.
Ironically these are the same traits that have alienated him from the aspirational middle class.
Although polygamy is legal, a 2010 survey found that 75% of South Africans disapprove of the practice.
And most of those who frown upon it are women. Yet despite these views, polygamy is upheld by African traditionalists as a form of cultural preservation.
The head of state is one such traditionalist and he basks in the latitudes of his Zulu culture.
Those who criticise him tend to be dismissed as members of the “chattering classes”, who have been indoctrinated by Western values.
Those who campaigned against a second term for Mr Zuma at the recent ANC conference pointed to his alleged corruptibility and poor economic management, with growth slowing to 2.5%.
Though not a pressing concern, his personal life was also raised as a cause for concern, with his opponents suggesting that his polygamy was setting a bad example for the youth, especially given South Africa’s high HIV rates.
Even though the president has often not discussed the issue of polygamy, he has argued that in a democracy, people have the right to freedom of cultural expression.
Consequently, his wife used the BBC interview to lambast his critics, maintaining that the allegations against her husband have never been tested legally and that the media thrives on sensationalism.
Careful not to get embroiled in the public debate, she returns to the emotional core.
She admits that the family has been weighed down by frustration and stress over these insinuations, but that Mr Zuma has remained unaffected.
He often reminds her that “you were not made by the media. You should not be broken by the media.”
And the Zuma family obviously have something to celebrate. The president was overwhelmingly re-elected ANC leader.
If one were to read between the lines, it could be argued that this was an endorsement of Mr Zuma’s African orthodoxy.
For others, it may be about giving him a second chance to prove that he has the ability to re-establish South Africa on the path of growth and international leadership.
Whatever the interpretation, Mrs Ngema-Zuma says she did not expect any personal gain from this ANC election.
She says her foundation existed before she married the president and will continue its work irrespective of his tenure in office.
In that moment, she reasserts herself as being a validated woman despite the complexity of the marriage she is in and the perceptions about her husband.