Thuli Madonsela: How many wives does one need?

Thuli Madonsela: How many wives does one need?

Editor's Note: - Polygamy can cause heated arguments for and against it. Men who engage in polygamy are often seen as egotistic and self-centred, while the women in polygamous relationships are seen as subservient. took a look at South Africa's former public protector Thuli Madonsela's opinion on the matter.

Men who engage in polygamy are narcissistic and women who acquiesce have a defeatist mind-set that accepts that men deserve more than women in a relationship. That is the impression I got from arguments.

It is almost 20 years since the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act was passed and 18 years since it became operational. The act recognises polygamous marriages that predate it. Polygamous marriages concluded after the act are recognised, subject to them meeting specified requirements. Key is the consent of an existing wife or wives and subdivision of the matrimonial estate before the new marriage is concluded.

Is it really what women want?

The act legalised polygamy despite its overwhelming rejection by the majority of women in or raised in such relationships. Polygamy was said to constitute unfair discrimination against women in that it unfairly favoured men. It was said to diminish men’s social, economic and emotional responsibilities in a family, among others, and place the bulk of responsibility for parenting on women.

Polygamy was further blamed for putting women and children in a toxically competitive environment, regarding meeting the approval of the husband and father, among many other ways through which it reinforces patriarchy.

There are women who advocate for polygamy

The few women supporting polygamy principally wanted to guarantee the rights of women already in polygamous marriages. Some even argued, as one woman did during the Dare To Change programme, that polygamy deters men from philandering. She said under polygamy she always knows where her husband is and that this was insurance against risks such as HIV. But is it so?

Do men feel it is their right to have as many wives as he wishes?

That polygamy reinforces patriarchy cannot be disputed. But why it thrives and why women are its key defenders is puzzling. From the Dare To Dream arguments, I was left with the distinct impression that both men and women saw polygamy as a cultural right of men.

But how can a right be one-sided under a Constitution that guarantees women and men the right to equality which, according to the court in Pretoria Municipality versus Walker entails the right to be treated with “equal concern and consideration”. The prohibition of unfair discrimination in the Constitution was further said to provide “a bulwark against invasions that impair human dignity, among others”.

What about the children?

Children need more than financial support from parents. They need physical support, emotional support and even availability to assist with tasks such as homework? Can a father who has various households demanding his presence fulfil such responsibilities?

How is polygamy bettering the lives of women?

Ultimately, we must ask whether life is better for women in polygamous act marriages today. To assume equal bargaining power is to be oblivious of unequal gender relations due to patriarchy. Anecdotal evidence reveals that many men don’t even ask for and others don’t care about consent. We must admit though that a dependent wife is better off in a polygamous marriage than being abandoned.

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Do polygamists stop cheating?

Evidence shows that they don’t. Perhaps the way forward may not be to change the law but to teach boys empathy. They need to know that women are not in this world to serve them. They are here as companions with their own physical, emotional and socioeconomic needs. They also need to know that child rearing is a full-time responsibility for women and men and, ultimately, that a better world is a more socially just one.

Perhaps things should change

Twenty years later, it’s time we reviewed the act’s effect against the assumptions made about polygamy when it was passed. I’m convinced that polygamy is all about pandering to the needs of narcissistic men. The answer lies in liberating men from such narcissism and women from the belief that there is no other way.

Read the rest of Madonsela’s views on polygamy on News24.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of Thuli Madonsela and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of

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