Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

June 12, 2021

South Africa may become the first country to recognize full polyamorous marriage

South Africa has been abuzz for the past month over a government proposal, now out for public comment, to make polyamorous group marriages fully legal and recognized without regard to the members' sexes or genders. 

The proposal grows out of South Africa's existing recognition of traditional polygynous marriage — one man with several wives — which has deep cultural roots in the region. (For instance, the previous South African president Jacob Zuma has four wives.) Now the government is considering, among other marriage reforms to accommodate cultural and religious minorities, a proposal to recognize polyandry, group marriage with more than one man, based on the national principle of gender equality.

The proposal, in the Green Paper on Marriages in South Africa (PDF download), is open for public comment through June 30. Reaction has been intense.

South Africa's small but energetic polyamory community has suddenly found itself the center of media attention, and polyamory spokespeople have been interviewed all over.

Let's start with the thorough article I Do, to You and You Too in the Sunday Tribune, owned by South Africa's largest print-news publisher (May 16):

By Tshego Lepule and Nkululeko Nene

...A proposed change to the country’s marriage laws is flipping the script on patriarchy and proposing that women be allowed to wed more than one partner too.

The possible recognition of polyandrous marriages in South Africa has sparked widespread and vigorous debate.

Last month, the Department of Home Affairs published discussion documents that outline policy proposals to the country’s marriage regime that, if adopted, would see a host of unions that are not currently recognised become legal.

Currently, the country has three marriage laws: the Marriage Act 25 of 1961, that recognises Christian monogamous unions; the Recognition of Customary Marriages of 1998, that deals with cultural marriages; and the Civil Unions Act of 2006, which deals with same-sex marriage.

All three pieces of legislation have been criticised, however, for loopholes that exclude the recognition of Hindu, Muslim and other customary marriages in the Khoi and San communities.

This week, politicians weighed in with their views on the proposals, particularly when it came to recognising polyandrous marriages that allow women to marry more than one husband, as currently the country’s law only recognises polygamy – where a man can have more than one wife.

The paper makes provisions for different options that could be adopted in recognising different marriages. One speaks about religious and cultural neutral marriages, and another that is gender-neutral and allows for all marriages, monogamous or polygamous, to be conducted regardless of sexual orientation, allowing both polygamy and polyandry.

President of the South African National Christian Forum (SANCF) Bishop Marothi Mashashane said: “According to the bible, polyandry is considered a sexual immorality, and so is the marriage between people of the same sex, and we shall by no means bless such relationship as a marriage.

“This proposal is nothing but a disgrace and a mockery to both our religion and our African cultures. We oppose and condemn it in all terms.”

Both Al Jama-ah and the African Christian Democratic Party have also voiced their disapproval of the proposal.

Polygamist [sic] Erich Viedge [of Polyamory South Africa] said despite polygamy being legal in the country, there were still some citizens who could not enter into marriages.

“I have two partners, one of which I’m not allowed to marry because the law says I have to register a traditional marriage, which I cannot as a white, middle-aged man. This means some citizens are allowed privileges that some cannot access, and these are some of the problems this green paper is trying to solve,” he said.

“With polygamy, women have always got the short end of the stick, as they were not always protected under law if their marriages were not recognised. And now, more than ever, women are expressing their sexual selves more as society becomes more equal.

“People don’t need to keep (partners) hidden; they can introduce them to their existing partners, and as consenting adults they can form relationships that suit them. This green paper means if either of them wishes to enter into marriages, they can do so freely. I’m currently living with both partners, but I’m not allowed to marry both of them,” Viedge said.

“Polyandry does exist in this country; the reason we don’t see it as often as we see polygamy, is because of stigma and toxic masculinity where men are threatened by there being more than one penis in the relationship.”

Samantha*, 42, who is polyamorous, says the stigma around females having more than one partner, particularly if they are both male, is still rife.

“I have been married to my husband for 10 years and we have two children together. We have an open marriage where we are free to date other people,” she said.

“Stigma is still a big thing in society around women openly dating more than one partner without being called nasty names. I don’t know if one day this proposal becomes law if I would want to walk down the aisle and take another husband, but it is a step in the right direction.”

Siphiwe Sithole says while much stigma is attached to non-monogamous relationships, a shift in legislation would go a long way in helping change mindsets, particularly in the black communities.

“I support the idea of legally recognising non-monogamous relationships, and in this case, the idea that women, in particular, can marry more than one husband, is a step in the right direction and an indication of a transformative democracy,” he said.

“Polyamory certainly challenges a lot of norms and ideas we all grew up with; this doesn’t, however, necessarily make it wrong. But we lack a platform and safe space as a nation to talk about these issues, hence many people who practice non-monogamous relationships live in hiding, particularly fearing stigmatisation.

“Marriage is a construct rooted in patriarchy and this is slowly changing. I, as a black polyamorous person, is in full support of the green paper by the government to re-examine the entire institution of marriage. I believe it is a significant step in not only changing our mindset as a nation around marriage alone, but also a great effort in trying to dismantle patriarchy,” Sithole said.

Cultural activists and religious leaders have rubbished the discussion on polyandry, which sparked a heated debate in Parliament recently. ...

In publishing their Green Paper for public comment, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said: “This is the beginning of a crucial public discourse that will redefine the concept of marriage in South Africa.”

Motsoaledi said the next step to implementing the marriage policy would include submitting it to the Cabinet for approval by March 31 next year.

This would be followed by submitting the Marriage Bill to the Cabinet for approval by the end of March 2023 and, finally, taking the Marriage Bill to Parliament for approval by March 31, 2024.

Here's just one more article out of a great many: a news piece (with 10-minute audio) on Cape Talk Radio: SA govt considers new marriage law that recognises women with multiple husbands (May 11). An excerpt:

By Qama Qukula

...Elizabeth Retief, a member of PolyamorySA, has welcomed the proposal as a move in the right direction.

According to Retief, the department’s proposals are a step closer towards the acceptance of non-monogamy in South Africa.

However, she explains that the laws are still focused on polyandry and polygyny, which are both forms of polygamous marriages.

Polygamous marriages are primarily based on traditional value systems, cultural beliefs, heteronormativity, and static gender roles, she argues.

Retief says greater advocacy is still needed for polyamorous relationships, which are more fluid, progressive, open, and accepting of different sexualities and gender identities. ...

From the homepage FAQ of Polyamory South Africa. Click to enlarge. 

Greenfizzpops, longtime organizer of the older ZAPoly discussion list ("the umbrella mailing list for polyamory in South Africa") and its website, sent us this (May 19):

It has been a week hey. If you do this google search you will see the tip of the iceberg. 

There are some bright lights.... [But] a few thoughts/observations: 

1. The misogyny and sexism brought to light by this debate is pretty sickening. It points out very firmly that we live in a patriarchy and most people don't even realise it.

2. In our legal system, marriage is clearly primarily about property rights.

3.The amount of incoming media requests by journalists who don't know the difference between polyamory and polygamy/polygyny/polyandry is overwhelming.

4. There are opportunities here to benefit polyamorous people. The Department of Home Affairs is inviting comment on their green paper.

Polyamory is hardly new to the South African media and public. For many years Greenfizzpops has been logging South African articles and broadcasts on the website of ZAPoly, where she includes 67 from 2003 to 2019, with links. (Click "media" in the sidebar there.)

Erich Viedge of Polyamory South Africa, a newer group (Facebook page), writes to us,

South Africa has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. They were the fifth country in the world to legalize same sex marriage when their constitution was adopted.

Or are they?

Marriage law in South Africa is a mess.

The racially-segregated Apartheid regime had one marriage law for Whites and another regime for Blacks. 

After the fall of Apartheid in 1994, the new government was keen to adopt a very liberal constitution which recognised the basic humanity of all people, Black, White, gay, trans and straight as well as differently-abled.

Rather than repeal the racist marriage legislation, the new government quickly patched up the deficiencies as best they could. They introduced the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act which gave legal recognition to the traditional polygamous marriages that indigenous peoples were conducting anyway.

The new government also introduced the Civil Unions act, which was a marriage-in-everything-but-name for gay couples.

But legal marriage remains reserved for one man.

There are lots of legal and practical problems with this.

For instance, if you're trans and married, and transition while you're married, your marriage is no longer recognised. You have to get divorced.

If you belong to an ethnic group whose traditional leaders are not recognised by government, then your marriage to multiple women is not legally recognised. Ironically, this excludes the San and Khoe peoples who were the original inhabitants of the country.

Because Apartheid was conceived as a Christian theocracy, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim marriages are not recognised. This is ironic in a country that recognises polygamy for some people and not for others.

And of course, only Christian clerics can apply to be marriage officers. So if you're gay and want to marry, you need to find a sympathetic church (good luck with that). And if you go to get married at the City Hall, the government officials are allowed to object on grounds of conscience.

Finally the government wants to harmonise this hodge-podge of legislation in line with the principles of the constitution.

They want one marriage regime for gays and straights. They want to recognise marriages conducted in religions outside Christianity (Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Rastafarian among others). 

And they want to keep traditional polygamy on the books, and extend it to other groups who might want it. Think the Khoe and San people, Muslims, and... Well, and polyamorists.

It hardly seems fair that you have to be a man, born into a certain ethnic and linguistic group, before you're allowed to marry more than one woman.

And it hardly seems constitutional that if you're a woman, you don't have the same rights as a man to marry more than one spouse.

...Predictably, this has caused heads to explode all over this conservative country on the southern tip of Africa. Christians are against polygamy and gay marriage (even though some polygamists justify polygamy on Christian grounds). Muslims are against polyandry -- the idea that women can marry more than one man, on their religious grounds. Traditional leaders are also against empowering women, and of course they make it about "the children." How will the children know who their father is? Culturally, the lineage is important because it ties children to their ancestors. Certain traditional ceremonies require knowing who your ancestors are.

Polyandry is not new to Africa. The Maasai of Kenya practice occasional polyandry, and polyandry is not criminalised in Kenyan law. The Himba and Herero of neighbouring Namibia also practice polyandry, as does Queen Modjadji of the Babedu people, a kingdom of 100 or so villages in northern South Africa.

All this has caused a flurry of media excitement.

Caught up in all this are secular polyamorists who find themselves in a strange situation. Suddenly, after accepting that the relationship escalator is simply not available to the polyamorous community, the South African government has introduced [that possibility]. Just like for monogamous folk, the idea of Love, Marriage and Baby Carriage (in that order) may soon become the law of the land.


ANNOUNCEMENT:  "Join a Global Live Event hosted by Poly Pages on White Supremacy in Polyamory. Join our facilitator All of El in discussion with Dr Justin Clardy, Michelle Hy and Marjani Lane. This event will run on Juneteenth, 19th June 2021, at 9am Hawaii, 12pm PST, 3pm EST."  Paid online event, modest price, sliding scale. All welcome.

"White Supremacy is everywhere -- polyamorous people and communities are not immune. Academic research excludes and erases the non-monogamous experiences of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC), play parties privilege and protect white experiences at the expense of BIPOC bodies, and media representations of consensual non-monogamy often centre exclusively white relationships. The work deconstructing systemic structures of white supremacy must begin with critical discussion about the ways these structures shape our relationships with others and with ourselves."

ANNOUNCEMENT:  An initiative for a new and better polyamory flag and other symbology. Sarah at PolyamProud writes,

I recently read your article on your distaste for the polyamory pride flag [The Polyamory Flag is a Grim, Confusing Failure. Let's Do Better, July 27, 2020, my most-read post of the last 12 months  --Ed.]. I noticed that you have seen the reddit post by TheGreyBandit and his new ideas on the Polyam flag. I am currently working with him and several other Polyam people who all agree with you. We have collectively formed @PolyamProud, a volunteer coalition dedicated to establishing a definitive and representative visual identity for the polyamorous community.

Have an announcement that might belong here? Write to me at alan7388 (at) gmail.com

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