Teen pregnancies: Zuma embodies the problem, not the solution

Sara Gon says you can have a constitutional, modern democracy or you can retain outdated, misogynistic traditions

When former President Jacob Zuma vowed at a recent rally of recently that if the Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party came to power it would exile pregnant teens to Robben Island, he was actually returning to an idea he had first shared with a gathering of traditional leaders back in 2015.

“They must be taken and be forced to go to school, far away,” Zuma recommended nearly a decade ago. “They must be educated by government until they are empowered and they can take care of their kids; take them to Robben Island or any other island, sit there, study until they are qualified to come back and work to look after their kids.”

He was speaking, of course, as the president of the country, and this was his plan to deal with the scourge of teenage pregnancy.

He told the traditional leaders: “The women protested, ‘I want to take their kids away from them and blah, blah, blah’. So I kept quiet, because I was saying in no way can you have young kids being mothers of other kids and young boys being fathers of kids, they know nothing of it.”

As then Democratic Alliance spokeswoman Phumzile van Damme put it at the time: “As the holder of the highest office in the land, the president has done an embarrassing, and offensive disservice to the countrys teenage pregnancy crisis and his governments role in addressing the socio-economic problems that underpin it.

“The presidents comments are devoid of any responsible solutions to curbing teenage pregnancy, which require that we adopt a whole of society approach involving all stakeholders in developing young people with the aim of producing responsible, skilled and well-resourced adults.

“Actual prevention of teenage pregnancy is far more difficult than making wild statements about separating young mothers from their children, as President Zuma has chosen to do The presidents comments are not only irresponsible, but expose a deep-seated patriarchal thinking behind his words.”

Zumas office promptly issued a statement claiming that the President had not singled out girls for criticism. “President Zuma was emphasising the need for teenagers to focus on their studies and said children should not be raising children. In his remarks he referred to both boys and girls. The statements by commentators that the president singled out girl children only for criticism with regards to teenage pregnancy is incorrect.“

Well, Zuma is at it again.

In his keynote address at the MK Party rally in Maqongqo, KwaZulu-Natal on 25 February, he once again vowed that pregnant teens would be exiled to Robben Island under an MK Party government.

“According to the law,” he told the rally, “a child should not give birth to a child, thats not life, its a disease. We will end it.” The MK Party would build a university on Robben Island for pregnant teenagers to complete their studies, he said.

I think we can safely assume that when he talks about “pregnant teenagers” he’s not including the boys.

While his frankly embarrassing obsession may play to a traditional audience, in a democratic South Africa he has displayed a staggering level of misogyny.

Zuma lives in a country where in 2023 we recorded 90 000 under-aged pregnant girls.

Except that females can’t become pregnant unless males participate. Whether it’s “consensual” or not is irrelevant because males responsible for the impregnation of 90 000 under-aged girls have committed statutory rape − consent is irrelevant.

Then there is the practice calledfunelani nganeno”. Innocent Madonsela, who describes herself as an Nguvu Collective Change leader’, launched a petition to get the SA Human Rights Commission to intervene to protect young girls, and stop the practice. She describes the horror of under-aged pregnancies:

“Under this tradition, a man can take any disadvantaged girl from the street as they desire, spend the night with her, take her back to her parents in the morning, and report their actions towards the girl child. A paltry sum as low as 100 ZAR is offered to the parents to make things right. There is no formality in this agreement, therefore it is not legally documented. And just like that without the 10-year-old childs knowledge she has become a wife to someone who is in his 30s or 40s.

“This tradition is not only happening in my village, recently there have been reports that children as young as 10 have fallen pregnant in the last year with KwaZulu-Natal recording 26 515 pregnancies of young girls aged 10 to 19 in eight months.” 

Ten-year-old girls being raped by adult men who then compensate poor parents for the pleasure? Innocent describes how these men, after impregnating 10-year-old girls, “then [leave] eaving them to suffer through difficult pregnancies alone”.

“Even worse is that this outright sexual exploitation, statutory rape and abuse of girls is normalised by parents and our tribal authorities under the tradition of funelani nganeno”. See the petition here.

I trust I don’t have to explain the physical and mental torment of being a 10-year-old girl facing “motherhood”? And should one honestly have to explain to the male leadership how terrible it is to subject a child to a pregnancy? It is unimaginable and is often life threatening.

The fact that parents effectively have to “pimp out” their daughters to survive is a testament to the ruination brought on by ANC policy, which just about guarantees no economic growth and therefore no employment, the key to better their lives and freedom from the temptation of allowing men to rape their 10-year-old daughters.

And Zuma’s belief that ostracising teenage girls for what teenage boys and adult men have done says more about him than do any of the allegations against him of fraud and corruption and their implications for the country, and that bar is high indeed.

In the name of tradition, Zuma is a polygamist. He has had six wives who have produced 15 children, and he has at least another eight children with women he was cheating with.

Twenty-three children? Maybe that’s why he can’t understand the crisis of single, female parent households in our society and the impact that not having a father around has for a child’s development? He couldn’t be an attentive father to 23 children and still ruin the country.

And remember the tragedy of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, or Khwezi, as the public knew her? She was an Aids activist who was HIV-positive and the daughter of an ANC member who had spent 10 years on Robben Island with Zuma. She accused Zuma of rape.

Zuma was acquitted in the trial that ran during 2005 into 2006. He claimed the act was consensual. The judge could not find “beyond a reasonable doubt” that he had committed rape.

After the trial she and her mother were offered asylum in Holland after their home was burnt down and Khwezi received threats to “burn the bitch”.

In evidence he described in detail how he had sex with Khwezi, saying he went to her bedroom because she wanted to tell him something. She was wearing only a kanga (wrap), and he changed into his pyjamas.

When “the woman” complained that her body was sore and asked for a massage, Zuma fetched baby oil from his bathroom, he testified. He started massaging her, and she removed her kanga; after the massage he got into bed with her.

Neither had a condom, but they had sex, Zuma said, knowing that she was HIV positive. He asked if he could ejaculate inside her, and she did not respond; he went ahead.

Zuma believed that his accuser was sending him sexual signals (including wearing a knee-length skirt and no underwear under her kanga), but denied that he set her up in his guest room to test them.

Zuma said he was surprised that his accuser left his bedroom after they had had sex, and that his reason for taking a shower afterwards was to minimise his chances of contracting HIV.

When I was in Venda recently I was so impressed to see how people there express respect for other people. A woman would clap her hands and even lie down to show respect. I was so impressed. If I was not already married to my wives I would go to Venda to look for a woman,” he said in evidence.

He also said: “You cannot leave a woman if she is already at that stage (of sexual arousal).

He said, among other things:

“Under normal circumstances, if a woman is dressed in a skirt, she will sit properly with her legs together. But she would cross her legs and wouldn't even mind if the skirt was raised very much.”

“I had no problem having sexual intercourse with her, bearing in mind that she had needs.”

“She consented. She actually took the initiative. When she got into that bed she encouraged me.”

One would be forgiven for expressing doubt in his alleged passivity.

Zuma has no right to represent the people of South Africa. He certainly doesn’t deserve the vote of the millions of women, and right-thinking men, who would be appalled at his indulging his traditional rights.

As the deputy editor of the Sunday Times, Mike Siluma, said this month: “When former president Jacob Zuma proposes to exile pregnant girls to Robben Island, it tells us much about his primitive views on gender matters and human rights.”

You can have a constitutional, modern democracy striving for equal rights for women, or you can retain outdated, misogynistic traditions that do the opposite. You cannot have both.

Sara Gon is head of strategic engagement at the Institute of Race Relations