Zuma apologises for fathering illegitimate child

South African President's 'rampant libido' provokes fury in country where 5.7 million are HIV-infected
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South African President Jacob Zuma apologised yesterday for fathering an illegitimate child, in the face of a national outcry. Critics say Mr Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist who practises polygamy and currently has three wives, a fiancée, and 20 children, including the baby he fathered with another woman, has set a bad example in a country with one of the world's highest rates of HIV/Aids.

In a statement, Mr Zuma said: "I have over the past week taken time to consider and reflect on the issues relating to a relationship I had outside of wedlock... It has put a lot of pressure on my family and my organisation, the African National Congress. I deeply regret the pain that I have caused to my family, the ANC, the Alliance and South Africans in general."

Mr Zuma's hyperactive private life has hit a nerve in a country hardest hit by the virus that causes Aids. As a president whose political career survived a rape trial, he is expected to emerge relatively unscathed from the disclosure that he is the father of a baby girl, born in October. But the political opposition says he is a poor role model in South Africa, where an estimated 5.7 million of its 50 million people are infected with HIV, more than any other country. "All these Aids campaigns tell us to have one partner, but our president has five," said Phemelo Mmitsinyane, an 18-year-old University of Johannesburg student.

While some South Africans see the president's polygamy as outdated, others applaud him for embracing what they see as traditional African values. South African law recognises such traditional marriages, though fewer young people enter into them because they are seen as expensive and old-fashioned. But after his latest indiscretion, The Star newspaper lambasted Mr Zuma in an editorial: "His rampant libido has made South Africa a laughing stock of the world and may even harm the country's interest."

Helen Zille, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, said Mr Zuma's polygamy and sex outside marriage undermines the country's fight against HIV/Aids. Experts say having multiple, concurrent partners heightens the risk of contracting the virus. And the fact that his mistress got pregnant indicates they may have had unprotected sex. "Zuma believes he is above the law and social norms. He believes that he can get away with anything," Ms Zille wrote in a weekly newsletter on Thursday, a day after the President publicly acknowledged he was the baby's father.

The mother is Sonono Khoza, the 39-year-old daughter of a prominent South African soccer official who is helping lead preparations for the World Cup, according to local media reports.

Since the disclosure, Mr Zuma has been lampooned in political cartoons. On Friday, The Star ran a list of Zuma jokes on the front page. One of the jokes said ruling-party officials have stopped Mr Zuma from kissing babies "because they might call him 'Daddy'."

The President – once ridiculed for saying a shower could prevent Aids – earned high marks on World Aids Day on 1 December, when he announced expanded treatment for HIV-positive babies and pregnant women, a move that could save hundreds of thousands of lives. Mr Zuma was acquitted of rape in 2006 after he insisted the unprotected sex he had with the HIV-positive daughter of a family friend was consensual. But he went on to win leadership of the ANC and became President last year after his party swept elections.

The President, who was once imprisoned under apartheid, spent years in exile before surviving corruption and sex scandals and a party power struggle to reach the nation's highest office. Many impoverished South Africans believe his personal battles and eventual triumph give him insight into their own struggles and aspirations.

The latest scandal will not harm Mr Zuma's career, according to Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a joint project of South Africa's Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. "Politically this will have no impact whatsoever," he said.