- By Pooja Chhabria
- BBC World Service
In his younger years, Muvumbi Ndzalama often questioned the tradition of monogamy. She remembers asking her parents if they would stay together for the rest of their lives.
“I felt like people were meant to pass through our lives,” she told the BBC.
“But everything around me, from the movies to the local church, preached monogamy, and I never understood the concept.”
To read especially on BBC Africa:
Now 33, Muvumbi identifies as a polyamorous pansexual woman who creates a safe space for non-monogamous people in South Africa.
“I have an anchor partner that I am currently engaged to and have children with, and my other partner is happy for us,” she says.
“He does not want to get married … but in the future I imagine a marriage with more than one person. And as a pansexual, I am attracted to people regardless of gender.”
A woman with more than one man?
South Africa has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, which allows same-sex marriage for all and polygamy for men.
The country is now considering updating its laws on marriage and in this context asks a crucial question: Should polyandry, that is, the fact that a woman has more than one man at the same time?
This question provoked a huge outcry from conservative circles.
“It will destroy African culture. What will happen to these people’s children? How will they know their identity?” asked businessman and TV personality Musa Mseleku, who has four wives.
“The woman can now not take the role of the man. It is unheard of. The woman will now pay the lobola [dot] for the man? Should the man take his last name? “
Others, such as the leader of the opposition Christian Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Pastor Kenneth Meshoe, believe it will “destroy society”.
“There will come a time when one of the men will say, ‘you spend most of your time with this man and not with me’ – and there will be a conflict between the two men,” he adds.
‘People’s faith is shaken’
Ms. Muvumbi is aware that this is a crucial moment for women in polyamorous relationships.
“The current situation is tense – many people’s beliefs are shaken,” she says.
“Men have been openly and happily polygamous or polyamorous for generations now, but women continue to be ashamed of it and there is much learned to do,” she argues.
Muvumbi has been blatantly polyamorous, or “poly” as society used to call her, for over a decade now. Being poly simply means that you can have more than one relationship, with the full support and trust of any partner you choose to have.
She currently has two male partners – an “anchor partner” with whom she is engaged and shares resources, and a “pleasure partner” from whom she receives sexual or romantic pleasure but meets less frequently.
We practice a style called “table polyamory”, which is about getting to know each other’s partners, “she explains.
“We do not necessarily have to pull ourselves together, but I would like this openness to be very stuttering and common,” she continues.
She was initially skeptical about telling it to her family, but she decided to ‘get out’ about five years ago when her bond with her anchor partner, Mzu Nyamekela Nhlabatsi, was strengthened.
“My presenting partner is also polygamous and I did not want my family to encounter him in a public place with another partner and get confused,” she explains.
“That was also when our daughter was five and I started getting involved in this space. I was appearing on local TV while fighting for polyamory and I did not want them to find out. Another source.”
Muvumbi has found some acceptance from them but says there is a long way to go.
She remembers her recent engagement when her anchor partner performed the custom of lobola – the tradition where a man pays his bride’s family to get her hand.
“They asked me if they should expect another man to come and pay the dowry, and I told them it could happen in the end,” she says.
“I have to live my truth whether they like it or not.”
‘Roots in the patriarchy’
Human rights activists are currently fighting for polyandry to be legalized in South Africa for reasons of equality and choice, as the law currently allows a man to take more than one wife.
Their proposal was included in a document released by the government for public comment as it embarks on the biggest revision of marriage law since the end of the white minority rule in 1994.
The document also proposes granting legal recognition to Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Rastafarian marriages that are currently considered invalid.
According to Muvumbi, the proposal is “like an answered prayer”, and the concerns that polyandry raises are rooted in patriarchy.
Professor Collis Machoko, a famous researcher on the subject of polyandry, sees similar signs. “With the advent of Christianity and colonization, the role of women diminished. They were no longer equal. Marriage became one of the tools used to establish hierarchy.”
According to him, polyandry was once practiced in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, and is still practiced in Gabon, where the law allows it.
“The issue of children is an easy question. No matter what children are born by this association, they are children in the family,” he adds.
‘It’s a different match’
Muvumbi finds that patriarchal beliefs creep into some of her past relationships and has since found it easier to be with partners who are themselves poly.
“A lot of men would pretend they were okay with me being poly, but then they weren’t anymore,” she recalled.
“My type of polyamory is not where I try to get as many lovers as possible – it’s about exploring a connection with someone if you feel like it,” she explains.
Muvumbi met his two partners through an online community that aims to bring together poly-individuals in South Africa. While the country discusses legal recognition of polyandry, she is building an online platform called Open Love Africa in collaboration with her anchor partner. She explains that they mainly strive to preach “ethical non-monogamy”.
“The community is pro-black, but it remains inclusive and we hope to grow it as we move forward,” she says.
“It’s a gift for people who are fortunately non-monogamous – hopefully they find their tribe and do not feel the need to live in a lie.”
And like any other struggle, she says, there will always be people who are against it.
“When my mother was pregnant with me, she protested that women could get contraception without a man’s consent,” she says.
“It was a different match then, and it’s a different match for me now,” she said.
Additional reporting by Pumza Fihlani