Zuma's fifth wife set to stake claim for first lady

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Exactly one year after marrying his fourth wife, the ANC leader Jacob Zuma is set to take a fifth bride, swelling the ranks of what is expected to be South Africa's first family after elections later this year.

Arrangements for the latest wedding had been kept under wraps until news leaked that the parents of Thobeka Mabhija, described as a Durban socialite, had already received "lobola", the bridal price.

The former trade unionist rarely comments on his private life but is believed to have at least 18 children. He married Nompumelelo Ntuli, in what was described as a "low-key" traditional ceremony in front of 800 guests at his rural Nkandla homestead in January last year. The 34-year-old wife number four was widely expected to be his first lady if, as expected, Mr Zuma takes over as president from the stand-in Kgalema Motlanthe following elections expected later this year.

Now she appears to have a serious rival in the form of Ms Mabhija, who is reported to have already had two children with the politician.

Mr Zuma's younger brother, Michael, confirmed that the Mabhija family were expected to bring customary gifts to the Zuma household this week and that a ceremony would take place "one of these days".

ANC officials initially denied wedding "rumours" but then changed tack issuing a statement insisting that there was "nothing sinister" in him taking another wife.

It is customary for eminent Zulus to take several wives and Mr Zuma has never hidden his polygamous status. "Honesty is always the best," he once told an interviewer. "There are plenty of politicians who have mistresses and children that they hide so as to pretend they're monogamous. I prefer to be open. I love my wives and I'm proud of my children."

However, the costs of maintaining such a large first family have raised some eyebrows in South Africa.

The ANC leader's biographer Jeremy Gordin has suggested that the cost of supporting his expanding family was what drew him into the relationship with Schabir Shaik. The businessman was later convicted of soliciting bribes on behalf of the politician, and Mr Zuma has only recently escaped prosecution on similar charges. He was earlier acquitted of rape charges in a separate case.