Robert Chauke had to buy a 22-seat bus to carry his enormous family, but it’s still not big enough for his six wives and 26 children.
All of them, from his 10-week-old baby to his 28-year-old son, live together in a small compound outside Johannesburg.
“I love all my wives. I can’t attribute this success in raising such a huge family to anything. I guess it is a blessing from God,” the 50-year-old said smiling, flanked by his six wives, aged from 25 to 44.
Families like Chauke’s are back in South Africa’s public debate, as South African President Jacob Zuma prepares to marry his long-time fiancee Bongi Ngema this weekend, giving the country four “first” ladies.
Polygamy is legal in South Africa, and is practiced by several of the country’s many ethnic groups — perhaps most famously among Zulus like Zuma, but also among the small Tsongas like Chauke.
However, the practice is becoming less popular, as modernity and Western patterns of life take root. A survey in 2010 found that nearly three-fourths of South Africans disapprove of polygamy. Among women, 83 percent disapproved.
Families generally have been getting smaller. The average household size in 1996 was 4.5, against 3.7 in 2007.
Chauke said he is following family tradition. His grandfather had seven wives while his father had four. His eldest son already has two wives.
“None of my wives work,” Chauke said proudly. “They stay with me in this house and we are one big, happy family.”
He supports his family by performing in a band and running a tavern in Orange Farm, the densely populated township where they live near Johannesburg.
They live in a seven-bedroom house, so each wife has her own room, each taking a turn for their husband to sleep the night. They share in the household chores and support each other in raising the children.
The wives insist they harbor no jealousies.
Ndela Ntshangase, a Zulu studies lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said polygamous marriages remain important even in modern times.
“Polygamy came about to address societal problems,” Ntshangase said.
Especially during times of war, villages were often left with more women than men.
“If all males stuck to one partner there would be a number of women without husbands and children,” he said.
Polygamy also provides a social safety net for women and children, by ensuring that men are held responsible for their relationships, he added.
“In this way you have less children born out of wedlock,” Ntshangase said.
Ntshangase’s argument sits well with Chauke’s first wife, Josphina, who asked her husband to marry her younger sister.
“I was the one who encouraged her to marry my husband so that we can be together in the family, so she can raise her children within the confines of a family set-up,” she said.