Thursday, February 11, 2010

the family man

Part of my English students’ mark for Term 1 is a reading mark for which they must demonstrate their ability to read out loud. How the mark is obtained is left to the discretion of the teacher. As one of the local newspapers routinely delivers packages of week-old newspapers to the school for students to use and read (though since they are placed in a room which students are forbidden to enter very few in fact do so), I thought these would be appropriate for this task.

Students were each given a newspaper with a variety of dates over the past month and we spent a period reading. I instructed them to find an article (of at least 100 words for Grade 11, 150 for those in Grade 12) that they would read then briefly summarize in a few sentences to the class. This would allow for the evaluation of their comprehension and public speaking skills.

One student chose an article that discussed the recent revelation of South African President Jacob Zuma’s extra-marital affair and the birth of a ‘lovechild’, bringing his total number of children to 20.

As some may not know, Jacob Zuma is a Zulu, a culture in which polygamy is commonly practiced. To date, Mr. Zuma has had 5 wives: one who committed suicide (allegedly due to strained relations with Zuma), one whom he divorced, and three to whom he is currently married. His most recent child was born to another woman – his mistress – the daughter of a well-known South African soccer executive.

While news of high-ranking politicians with mistresses is nothing new, this issue is particularly of note here in South Africa, a country with one of the highest incidences of HIV in the world. In an effort to quell the spread of the virus, the youth arm of Zuma’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) Party – The ANC Youth League – has taken a firm stance on the importance of monogamy in sexual relationships, and launched their ‘one boyfriend, one girlfriend’ HIV/AIDS awareness campaign on Youth Day last year. Organizations like LoveLife work tirelessly to get the youth of this country to regularly use condoms to protect themselves from HIV and other STIs, no small feat in a society where many of its poor live in patriarchic cultures where women’s wants, needs and desires are often secondary to those of their male counterparts.

Yet Mr. Zuma, clearly not satisfied with having not one but three wives, has again broken his marriage(s) vows, and had unprotected sex. Not that the President’s history isn’t already marred with scandal. Keeping in mind that this is a man who faced rape charges before he was elected (Zuma was found not guilty of said charges). Zuma admitted that he had had unprotected sex with his accuser (the daughter of a deceased friend of his) but that it had been consensual. When it came to light that his accuser was HIV positive, and that the President had been aware of his accuser's status before having sex with her, Zuma told the media that he didn’t have to worry about getting infected because he had taken a shower after they had had sex.

Again, South Africa is fighting an HIV epidemic. The ramifications of this man’s actions are not slight. Not in a country where getting many men to use condoms in the first place is a struggle, never mind its leader publically flaunting the fact that he does not and filling peoples’ minds with falsities about how one can protect oneself from infection. I find this man's disregard for the wide-reaching consequences of his actions appalling.

When news of Zuma’s child and affair made headlines last week, Julius Malema, President of the ANC Youth League was quick to come to Zuma’s defense. When asked about the ‘one boyfriend, one girlfriend’ campaign in relation to Zuma’s extra-marital dalliance, Malema refused to comment on the matter because: “Zuma is our elder, so we are not qualified to talk about that." End quote.

When my student had finished her presentation on the article, as I had previously done when a student read an article about a female Iraqi suicide bomber who claimed the lives of 54 people, I asked the class about their opinions on the issue. 10 hands immediately shot up.

The discussion that followed was a delight to watch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, views on the matter were for the most part divided by gender, with boys supporting Zuma’s activities because ‘it is part of his culture’ (as a matter of interest, while Zulu culture does practice polygamy, having children out of wedlock is not something that is condoned. More on this here). Some boys even went so far as to say that the President was ‘a leader’ and 'a chief' for how prolific he has been in expanding his brood and number of women in his life.

The girls were not of this view. One pointed out the contradiction between what the ANC Youth League preaches and the behavior of the President, calling him a hypocrite (single tear!). Another picked up on how Mr. Zuma is not acting like a leader, by disregarding his responsibility as a role model and acknowledging the power that his behavior can have over the South African people.

Another young boy said that he thought Zuma was going about being promiscuous in ‘the right way’. When I asked him what he meant by this, he clarified that because Zuma married the women he wanted, this meant that when he travelled overseas he would not be indulging with all the women he wanted (“like, if he went to China, if he didn’t have one of his wives with him, he would probably have sex with many women, with anyone he wanted, for example, strippers”). I stifled a smile when I asked him if he thought that because the President was married and took his wife or wives with him on his travels that this meant that he wasn’t ever unfaithful? "No miss," he answered, all innocent and wide-eyed. I asked him about the child the President has just fathered, one who was fathered out of wedlock, proving that not only has he been unfaithful but that he has had unprotected sex. It was interesting to see the looks on many of their faces as this logic registered.

I asked the students whether they thought the fact that this country is fighting an uphill battle against HIV was relevant to the discussion. I reminded them that this was not an issue about Zuma’s multiple wives or culture, it was more about his actions going against the message he and his party are trying to send to the youth in this country, the most group most at-risk of infection, and his responsibility as a leader to lead by example. Again, most of the girls and the boys were on different sides of the fence.

One of the female students told the class that Zuma is in the practice of dating women and impregnating them first, and then marrying them, not the other way around. She wondered if perhaps the President would soon be marrying his most recent baby mama. We spoke about how this practice is in complete opposition to what condoms are supposed to do, which dovetailed into a conversation about how unprotected sex is a risk behavior that they themselves must be vigilant about and always use condoms. They all agreed. All except one young man, the joker of the class.

“But Miss how are we supposed to have children if we are always using condoms?” He asked.

Touché. I smiled and said that I didn’t think that any of them were in that position right now, but that when that day came sure, if they are in a monogamous relationship with someone they love and they are both in a position to financially and emotionally support a child, maybe then they can think about having unprotected sex. But what must you do first? I asked.

“GET TESTED!” Came their reply in unison.

And until then?


And what else?


Great advice. Mr. President, are you listening?

No comments: