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S/Africa & polyandry: to legalise or not to legalise?

A proposal by the South African government to legalise polyandry has sharply divided opinion in the country in recent weeks…

A proposal by the South African government to legalise polyandry has sharply divided opinion in the country in recent weeks and is exposing a clash between patriarchal and matrimonial values.Polyandry has been trending in South Africa after the Ministry of Home Affairs gazetted a green paper for the Marriage Act earlier in May. 

Among other proposals, the paper proposes the recognition of polyandry as a form of marriage. 

Polyandry is a union in which a woman has more than one husband, similar to polygamy which allows men to have as many wives as they want.

Polygamy is already recognised in the country, with former president Jacob Zuma making headlines for having several wives.

Members of the public have been given until June 30 to comment on the green paper.

It is the ensuing debate that has followed the gazetting of the green paper that has made interesting reading.

The issue has ignited a fierce debate in the South African parliament as well as on Twitter.

In one such parliamentary debate, Al Jama-ah party leader Ganief Hendricks was criticised by main opposition Democratic Alliance chief whip Natasha Mazzone after he argued that polyandrous marriages would confuse children. 

“You can imagine when a child is born more DNA tests will be needed to discover who the father is. The problem is only going to get worse,” Hendricks warned.

But Mazzone would have none of that, saying Hendricks’ comments were insulting to women and that he should be investigated by the parliamentary ethics committee. 

“In this day and age, in the year 2021, to think a public representative of this country would dare stand up in the parliament of SA and say something like that is an absolute disgrace,” Mazzone said. 

Opinion is also divided among ordinary South Africans, with some — mostly men — being against the proposal.

“Polyandry is an attack on the institution of marriage,” one Twitter user wrote.

Others, however, argue that the arguments against polyandry are rooted in hatred and based on upholding patriarchal values in South Africa.

“Why is this even a debate when polygamy isn’t?”, another Twitter user wondered.

Another Twitter user wrote: “More than anything, polyandry is about choice, no one is saying all SA women must get two husbands but making it legal will give those women who wish to do so the right to do it legally. Opposing it means you are denying women that choice.”

Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi on Thursday sought to defuse the tensions, explaining that the green paper is not the official policy position of the government.

“It only articulates possible policy options or proposals that are based on inputs received from stakeholders during ministerial dialogues. These proposals will be subjected to public scrutiny,” Motsoaledi said.

He explained that having started ministerial dialogues about a new marriage policy for the country in August 2019, religious and traditional leaders, communities, academics, gender activists and social activists came up with proposals of how the policy could be enhanced.

Motsoaledi said the ministry recorded everything that the stakeholders said in those dialogues and put these out in the form of the green paper to enable society to start a national dialogue before it is brought to parliament.

“It was with very deep disappointment that the envisaged national dialogue descended into a war of words and cynicism about one and only one issue raised from the ministerial dialogue — the issue of polyandry,” Motsoaledi said.

South Africa will become the only African country to formally legalise polyandry if the proposal finds its way into the revised Marriage Act.

In most African countries marriage laws either outlaw polyandry or do not explicitly forbid the practice.

There have been isolated cases of polyandry in some of these countries. 

In Kenya, two men made headlines in 2013 when they entered into an agreement to marry the same woman.

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