JOHANNESBURG – As the World Cup approaches, South Africa has been gripped by a rather different contest, as intense as anything you'll see on the field over the next month – a scrap between Nompumelelo Ntuli Zuma and her husband Jacob Zuma, the country's president.
Allegations that MaNtuli, as she is known, had cheated on her husband swept the beautiful game from the headlines this week, and have been the fodder of hand-wringing columnists, bloggers and talk radio.
The theme of most was: "Well done MaNtuli." They could hardly contain themselves. One radio station even described her alleged infidelity with a bodyguard as a "victory for women."
This may seem like a perverse reaction, until, that is, you a take a peek behind the walls of Zuma's presidential mansion.
As a Zulu traditionalist, Zuma is a big believer in polygamy. He currently has three wives. He divorced a previous wife, and yet another previous wife committed suicide. Of his current three wives, MaNtuli is the second – the Second First Lady, as she is known.
MaNtuli, it appears, is not such a big believer in polygamy. When late last year Zuma announced that he was marrying again (current wife number three), she reportedly "went berserk," storming out of the presidential guesthouse, breaking a security door and hitting a security officer. She refused to attend the January wedding ceremony.
Newspapers reported that in April she was fined one goat by the extended Zuma family (part of Zulu tradition) as punishment for bad behavior, and that the goat was presented to her husband as an apology.
Neither the president nor MaNtuli have responded publicly to the allegations of her infidelity.
One newspaper reported recently that Zuma's wives were costing South African taxpayers roughly $2 million per year. And the bill may go up soon.
The 67-year-old president has become engaged to marry again, this time to a woman by whom he already has a child. And there are rumors of yet another wife being prepared for the Zuma marital conveyor belt.
The allegations of MaNtuli's cheating were contained in a leaked letter apparently written by another member of the Zuma household, possibly another wife. The revelations prompted lurid headlines about the "War of the Wives" and suggestions that the baby she is now carrying is that of the bodyguard, who has since allegedly killed himself.
Zuma is a fierce defender of polygamy. Yet, on an overseas visit earlier this year, he said he believed in the equality of women (who are not allowed multiple husbands), and called for the respect of Zulu culture.
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Critics say his behavior wouldn't be so bad if the president stuck to romantic entanglements with his three wives. Instead, by conservative estimates, Zuma has at least 20 children by at least eight different women.
In 2006, he was tried (and acquitted) for rape. At that trial he admitted having unprotected sex with a woman he knew to be HIV positive, saying he took a shower afterwards to fend off the virus.
This doesn’t set a particularly good example in a country with the world's highest rate of HIV infection – almost 20 percent of the population – according to U.N. estimates.
But it does explain why there has been such unrestrained glee over the MaNtuli allegations.
"It's goose for the gander," marveled one talk show host. For those of us gearing up for the World Cup, it has at the least been a rather entertaining sideshow. It’s hard to think of a soap opera that could beat "At Home With The Zumas."