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South Africa and the Politics of African Polygamy

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Broadly, this paper is about the valences and salience of polygamy as an African practice, both as a trope under constant reinvention as a recessive and particularly African gene, but also as a space for the assertion of a Christian pan-Africanism. In this paper, I want to look at the relationship between Christianity and polygamy in South Africa and Africa, especially during the middle of the 20th century. During the first half of the twentieth century, polygamy as a connected sphere of debate and contestation, reflected the views of anthropologists, missionaries and African Christians, in a way which helps to constitute African Christianity as a heterogeneous arena of contest in ways which transcended missionary attempts at the control of Christianity. Polygamy, unlike other customary practices which were easy to judge as either contrary or not contrary to protestant ecumenical Christianity, was the subject of much intense debate. Did being a polygamist render one ineligible for receiving the sacrament? What were the duties of converted polygamous men towards their wives? These questions preoccupied African Christian men to a great extent. To a much lesser extent were questions ever asked of women, though, and how they felt about polygamy. What were the global flows of knowledge, between ecumenical Christians in the north, and African Christians, which helped continually to reconstitute polygamy as a subject of debate? While this paper is about African polygamy, for two reasons it is connected to the peculiar settler colony which falls roughly below the Tropic of Capricorn. In the 1860s, before similar moves across the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, Bishop Colenso in Natal came out radically in support of polygamy. This moment provides the first of a pair of bookends connecting South Africa to the rest of Africa and the subject of polygamy. The second bookend is of course Jacob Zuma, certainly substantial enough to support a whole row of books, but also Africa’s most celebrated polygamist.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Occasional Talks series.

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