Getting tangled in a presidential conundrum

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the intriguing report of a former First Lady's application for divorce


Ah, the contortions the press must go through, to remain on the right side of the law. 

In South Africa, the media is not legally allowed to name the parties in a divorce action. Presumably, this is to shield the minor children of the marriage from traumatising publicity.

The law ensures that their peers will have no occasion to mock them on the playground, following the metaphorical airing in court of stained bedsheets. No one will tease them about Mommy’s weekly trysts with the Kreepy Krawly operator or Daddy’s penchant for bouncing a succession of secretaries on his, um, knee.

Admirable though these intentions, it also presents us with the occasional absurdity where the lives of high-profile public figures are put on lurid display in affidavits and during court proceedings but everyone is forced to pretend publicly that they don’t know exactly who the dramatis personae are. More occasionally, it means that sworn testimony containing stunning allegations of scandalous or criminal behaviour by a famous spouse is never properly interrogated because the claims are never openly discussed.

That this does not serve broader national interest is evidenced by a recent incident. 

Last weekend, in a delightfully delicate ballet through the legal minefield, journalist Tania Broughton revealed in the Sunday Times that a certain person’s soon-to-be ex-wife had made a High Court application for interim financial relief from her “exceptionally wealthy” husband. So far, this is rote in divorce cases: the wife wants lots of lolly to continue living the life that she’s had as kept woman and the mean husband is determined to keep spousal support at subsistence levels.

What made this such a scrumptious and unusual story is that this wasn’t just sommer another tawdry tale with our usual cast of the rich and famous. The “person” was, in fact, partially identified — an “ex-president” of the Republic. And the applicant was identified as “a former First Lady” of the ex-president of the Republic. 

Arguably, this information on its own is already grounds for public interest to outweigh any right to privacy and for the parties to be named. For unless the moral behaviour of the highest in the land is subject to scrutiny, we would have no idea of what hypocritical slime bags we might be electing. 

(There is the counter-argument that in South Africa we already do know what slime bags our aspirant parliamentary representative are and it makes no difference. After all, not too long ago the electorate endorsed as the country’s next president by an almost two-thirds majority a man fortunate to have just been acquitted of the rape of his comrade’s daughter. This was a president-to-be who explained to the court that there was no HIV risk to him from such unprotected sex since he had afterwards taken a shower.)

Nevertheless, in this case, the issue of the public good is abundantly clear. In the papers, which are part of the public record, the former First Lady, who remains unnamed in media reports, makes a startling number of claims about her husband’s financial affairs that should be of great interest to the Zondo Inquiry into State Capture and the Hawks.

Among the allegations:

That this particular ex-president received financial support from influential people in neighbouring countries. She says she has personal knowledge of this “and if called upon by the court I will be in a position to back this”.

That this particular ex-president is “exceptionally wealthy in his own right. Most of his assets, which are beneficially owned, are not registered in his own name.”

Her application then goes on to detail the usual heart-tugging stuff. She claims the ex-president subjected her to “emotional and psychological” suffering, deprived her of financial support for the past two years, and “allowed third parties, with whom he surrounds himself, to interfere in the marriage”.

This knavish behaviour occurred despite the fact, she says, that she was at his side during his rise to power and when he faced his critics: “I have devoted the past 28 years of my life to him and feel betrayed by his behaviour.”

Her “tireless” work on his behalf, the interim relief application claims, is deserving of R170,000 per month of spousal maintenance, as well as educational and medical costs for her and two children. She concedes that as a former First Lady she still has some state-funded benefits, but she notes that she personally has to pay for three domestic workers, an au pair, a personal assistant, and a tutor. She also needs to replace her luxury vehicle that was repossessed because she could no longer afford the presidential style to which she had become accustomed.

Like the rest of the country, I was agog at these newspaper revelations. Who could this heartless but anonymous monster be, I wondered? The pool of ex-presidents might be rank in parts but it is not big. The sleuthing in the public service should be easy, I thought.

Since we know that all our national woes have their origin in apartheid, I immediately thought of FW de Klerk. But De Klerk is married to a woman who is independently extremely wealthy. So, he’s out.

Nelson Mandela is dead, so it couldn’t be him. That left Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe — who as an interim appointment warmed the presidential seat for seven months — and Jacob Zuma. 

Some quick Google research revealed that Mbeki had been married for too long, 46 years, so it couldn’t be him. In contrast, Motlanthe and his present wife have been together for not long enough, so it couldn’t be him. 

That left Jacob Zuma. But Zuma, an enthusiastic polygamist, has at any one time had between four and six First Ladies while president. So this sentence in the court papers, with its implications of being the only wife, didn’t chime: “I fulfilled the role of First Lady [singular] with diplomacy, decorum and fortitude and sacrificed my own ambitions for his.”

Admittedly, there had been marital strife at Nkandla that cast a suspicious shade. Five years ago, Zuma accused one of his First Ladies, MaNtuli, of trying to poison him and expelled her from the harem. But, again, the timeline didn’t fit the court papers.

Also, it didn’t seem likely that having supposedly almost been murdered by one wife, that Zuma would risk the unknown but possibly terrible vengeance of another wife, by being miserly over the divorce settlement. I mean, surely nobody could be that stupid? Could they?

What a conundrum! I was back at square one. I guess until the law stops being an ass, we’ll just never know.

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