Zuma’s wives, Motlanthe’s non-wives

The right to privacy, specifically for ANC and national leaders, is going to be a focus of attention this week, after some Sunday papers took us deep into the private life of President Kgalema Motlanthe. The did not push us as far as the Sowetan did last Monday, when they told us he goes to bed each night alone “like a monk”. But the Sunday Independent did let us know that apart from his estranged wife, he appears to have two lady friends, one of whom is half his age and pregnant.

The ANC has been quick to say that the President’s relationship with his wife is a private matter, as is the President-elect, Jacob Zuma’s, polygamy. Are they right? I have already challenged them (see earlier posting) on Zuma’s marital choices, but are they right that the Indie and Sowetan breached the barriers of privacy?

The rule, in my books, is that one has to justify an invasion of privacy by showing that the information gives us substantive insight in the character, values and leadership capacity of the individual. But one has to add that those who choose public office must expect the public to have a prurient interest in their lives. They are role models and celebrities who often seem out and feed off publicity, and cannot always choose the nature of the attention they receive. In short, if you don’t have a personal life that can stand scrutiny or a thick skin, choose a quiet job away from the public eye.

Applying this rule to Zuma, as I have said, is an easy case. His choices go to his values and his capacity to lead, particularly when questions have been raised about his attitude to women, his traditionalism and his personal finances.

The Sowetan case is also an easy one. They went into the bedroom, and there seemed little ethical justification for this. It is one thing to want to know about the First Lady and her relationship with the president, but the paper breached their privacy when it spoke about their sleeping habits.

Today’s Indie story is more complicated. It tells us that the President has two woman with a claim on his affections. One appears to be a longstanding relationship; another is a young woman who is about to have his baby. The story reads true, with apparent verification built into it.

If the President is caught between three women in this way, complicating his personal life and raising questions about the position of First Lady, it seems to me that this does go to his character and values. It is a fine line, but I thought the Indie stayed within the line. It falls into that category of story that public figures must live with: choose a life in the media eye, and choose to mess about with multiple and apparently conflictual relationships, and you better have a thick skin.

For his media advisors, it does present a clear lesson: don’t try and fob things off with vague claims of privacy. Use privacy when it is valid, don’t abuse it as an excuse to avoid difficult questions. For the rest, assume this stuff is going to come into the open and pre-empt it. The president would have done well to give clarity to the “First Lady” question early on, and not invite media probing and speculation.

Zuma has been quoted as saying that many public figures have a number of sexual partners, and he is just open and honest about the women in his life. That stands as a challenge to the likes of Motlanthe.

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