KWANXAMALALA, South Africa — There's little question who will lead South Africa after Wednesday's national election. The real mystery lies in who will be the country's first lady.
As Jacob Zuma, the man preordained to be the country's next president, voted in his rural Zulu homeland Wednesday, one of his two current wives stood to the side watching patiently as he was mobbed by cheering crowds and reporters.
But Nompumelelo Ntuli, 34, Zuma's newest and youngest wife, was soon attracting her own crowd of admirers. Women whispered, "Isn't she beautiful!" as Ntuli decked out in an apricot and blue tie-dye outfit beamed happily.
"Jesus is Lord!" is all she would say in response to questions.
Zuma, 67, a Zulu traditionalist and an unabashed polygamist, has married at least four women over the years. Only two are still with him: Sizakele Khumalo, whom he married in 1973, and Ntuli, who he wed last year.
Of the other two, Kate Mantsho Zuma, committed suicide in 2000. He divorced the other, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, in 1998, although she remains a trusted aide and as the country's foreign affairs minister is expected to join his cabinet. He is said to have more than 10 children.
Multiple wives legal
South African law recognizes such traditional marriages, though fewer and fewer younger South Africans are entering into them because they are seen as expensive and old-fashioned. It remains common among several tribes, though, including the Zulus and Swazis.
To this point, neither of his wives has played much of a public role in his life or politics.
Khumalo presides over the family compound near the school where Zuma voted in KwaNxamalala (pronounced KWAH-nxah-mah-lah-lah). She is known to be shy, and was not spotted Wednesday.
Slideshow: Election excitement Ntuli, who uses her maiden name as is customary in polygamous marriages to differentiate among the wives, has been slightly more active outside the home. She organized a prayer meeting in southeastern South Africa earlier this year, calling for political tolerance, and established a community development foundation.
With Zuma's African National Congress party predicting an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary election, whose results are expected late Thursday, the first lady question is making headlines. Parliament elects South Africa's president, putting Zuma in line for the post when the new assembly votes in May.
Neither Zuma or the ANC have offered any answers to the question, saying the matter of his marriages is personal.
The Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa quoted Don Mkhwanazi, a trustee of the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust, as saying Zuma most likely will be guided by tradition and choose his first wife, Sizakele, to act in that capacity.
Zuma usually is unaccompanied at official functions. His daughter Dudzile, a staunch supporter who has been seen on the campaign trail recording his activities with a small video camera, also could be a possible official escort.
Zuma, of course, would not be the first leader in the world with more than one wife. In the Gulf, the number of a ruler's wives and who among them is paramount are a constant source of rumors. Publicly known first ladies in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and even Saudi Arabia do charity work and some are outspoken women's rights' activists — though their pictures never appear in the newspapers.
In recent years, rulers in Dubai and in Qatar each have designated one of their wives to speak at U.S. universities and international humanitarian foundations on pressing issues concerning the Arab world and its relations with the West.
Zuma's father, who also had multiple wives, was a policeman who died when he was a boy. His mother worked as a maid in the coastal city of Durban. He was denied a formal education and by 15 he was doing odd jobs to help support his family.
Zuma joined the ANC in 1959 and by 21 he was arrested while trying to leave the country illegally. He was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island, alongside Mandela and other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. In prison, Zuma resumed his schooling and began making a name for himself among ANC prisoners.
He left South Africa in 1975 for 15 years of exile in neighboring Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia, where he was appointed chief of the ANC's intelligence department. Following the lifting of the ANC ban in 1990, Zuma was one of the first of the group's leaders to return to South Africa.
Khumalo stayed with him despite those long absences.
At a small market in Eshowe, a town near Zuma's homestead, vendors selling oranges, avocados, pineapples and bananas were more interested in chorusing a long list of woes facing South Africa than the question of who would be its first lady.
After all, post-apartheid South Africa has never really had an American-style first lady in the glamorous mode of a Michelle Obama or Jackie Kennedy, or the policy-engaged model of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
One of the market vendors, Phindile Mbatha, 21, said she thought Dlamini Zuma would make a fine first lady.
Told that Jacob Zuma had divorced her some 10 years ago, Mbatha then declared that maybe the country did not need a first lady after all.
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