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.
Report by BBC
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, 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.
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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 Zuma, choosing to love and marry the South African president could not have been an easy choice.
Yet Ngema-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 wife 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.
As a former consultant to blue chip companies in IT and finance, 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 Awss, 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.
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.”