BUSANI NGCAWENI: Is polyandry patriarchy’s worst nightmare?


“Polyandry promotes infidelity.” “Women are not meant to have multiple sexual partners.” “How will she decide who to sleep with today?” “This polyandry thing is anti-Christian.” “This country is going to the dogs.”

So go the screaming headlines in the minds of many as people pick on one aspect of the marriage bill published by the Department of Home Affairs for public comment. Suddenly, some people are imagining their wives and girlfriends coming home to break the news that “I am taking the second one. I have already been having sex with him.”

Polyandry is becoming patriarchy’s worse nightmare, broadcasting men’s fragile egos.

On a very serious note, the polyandry idea is yet another sign that colonial encounters persist in South Africa, to the extent that the ultra-liberal socio-political outlook doesn’t necessarily guarantee ontological and epistemic freedoms as envisaged in the Freedom Charter.

Instead, the outlook mirrors a canvas representing cultures foreign and very peculiar to their circumstances. To us they become ‘universal’ even as our western liberal role models do not necessarily universalise that whose unintended consequences might be counter-productive.

In the end we will emerge with a mixed masala of society with dynamics incomprehensible and unmanageable.

Even as the real dangers to project democracy persist, that is, economic injustice and poverty which disproportionately affects black women, having the right to marry more than one man won’t necessarily restore economic freedom.

Otherwise, let us simplify this debate by asking two foundational public policy questions: Firstly, what problem are we trying to solve? Secondly, what are we restoring from that which colonial encounters (colonialism and apartheid) interrupted?

Laws are made to solve problems that the natural order of things cannot address, or those which have been broken by the elites. Built into such processes are aspirations of a future we choose as a society.

Again we contend, the polyandry debate must exit the bedroom and address these fundamental questions. Besides, it is also foolhardy to be outraged about polyandry in a county where keeping multiple concurrent sexual partners is preponderant across genders. It takes a vital cultural debate back to the bedroom, thus personalising it.

Polyandry is seemingly a threat to the patriarchy, judging by how men are reacting. For some religious zealots, it signals Armageddon.

READ: An abomination: Christian forum is against proposed polyandry legislation

Yet, in reality patriarchy is most certainly going to thrive under such a policy given the hyper-pandemic nature of gender-based violence in this country. We so argue because thus far there is no scientific basis (other than the grand rhetoric of equality) that polyandry will promote economic and cultural freedoms for women.

Personally, I believe nothing much will turn on it. But symbolically, it is huge policy move.

Philosophically, it is possible that we are blindly importing foreign cultures without necessarily understanding the circumstances under which they evolved in those cultures - all in the name of the Constitution.

The ontological basis of polyandry in the East Asian countries being cited is actually patriarchy - men needing to keep property in the family. It is not liberating to women as some falsely report here in South Africa.

Three brothers in Tibet marry one woman in order not to split land among themselves as they would if they were all to marry and start their separate families. The family structure in Tibet is built around preservation of property with the patriarchs not wanting to diminish the size and value of family land by bequeathing portions to married sons.

In South Africa, without clear cultural and economic objectives, polyandry will produce the consequence of liberating men from many responsibilities, including conjugal obligations.

Are we using the Constitution to import foreign cultures that will just confuse the natives who are yet to emerge from cultural imperialism?

In the grander scheme of things, does this open the doors of culture and restore what the Euro-Americans destroyed through colonialism, apartheid and imperialism? Or this is a modernist undertaking similar to what Theophilus Shepstone did with his reinvention of African culture with poison such as setting the bride price (lobola) so he could dispossess households?

The cultural base of white people remains relatively strong as it was not interrupted by colonial encounters. In fact, whites were major cultural beneficiaries of colonial encounters alongside the accumulation of social capital and wealth.

There is a case for a broader national debate on the cultural outlook we desire. The doors of culture remain closed as blacks constitute the cultural minority in this country. They do not produce knowledge. They do not set the trends. They are only a political majority with the right to make laws whose knowledge base is predominantly produced by the cultural majority.

Outside this broader debate of epistemic freedom, the Constitution, in popular imagination, will be seen as a tool of acculturation instead of restoring the ontological base which was destroyed by white supremacy.

Finally, it is worth pondering: does equality (as envisaged in the Constitution) have a cultural context? Or it is meant to be universal in a sense that South Africa will be a muddle of global cultures, as naïve as we may be of their genealogy and political economy?

To exit the bedroom (who sleeps with who when), our policy debates need a decolonial turn, in addition to science. We must be deliberate about the undoing of apartheid colonialism.

Busani Ngcaweni is co-editor of 'We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall'. Follow him on Twitter: @busani_ngcaweni

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