Mr Milton Mbhele with his four brides during their wedding ceremony in Weenen, northern KwaZulu-Natal. Mbheleâ€™s brides are from left: Happiness Mdlolo (24), Thobile Vilakazi (34), Smangele Cele (23) and Zanele Langa (24). Photo/SAPA STRINGER
South African businessman Milton Mbhele broke all the traditional rules of a polygamous wedding when he recently married four women on the same day.
The four brides, dressed in flowing white gowns, walked down the aisle together, before saying â€œWe doâ€ to the 44-year-old groom.
Mr Mbhele says he didnâ€™t marry them purely for the spectacle but because it also made financial sense. â€œI donâ€™t know how much four different weddings would have cost me but I know doing it all at once saved money,â€ he explains.
â€œFor example I only needed one tent, I needed to hire one caterer and one photographer for the entire ceremony.â€
â€œI began putting money aside for the event towards the end of 2007 and started collecting quotes for things like the tent and catering costs early last year.â€
He says he loves all his wives â€” Thobile Vilakazi, Zanele Langa, Baqinisile Mdlolo and Smangele Cele â€” equally and also treats them that way.
Mr Mbhele himself wears four rings on his finger. He says this is a sign of his commitment to all his wives.
The wives say they were shocked by the news that Mr Mbhele wanted to marry them at once, but add that they agreed because they love him.
Some two weeks after their much publicised two-day ceremony, Mr Mbhele says he is overwhelmed by all the attention his wedding has attracted.
I met Mr Mbhele and Smangele, at 23 the youngest Mrs Mbhele, at a hotel in Durban â€” the pair were set to do a radio interview with a national radio station the next day.
Mr Mbhele, a Zulu businessman and municipal manager, says polygamy is still very much part of Zulu tradition. â€œThis is a proud part of our culture. It has been practised for generations before us.â€
â€œMy grandfather himself had three wives,â€ says Mr Mbhele, quickly adding that he isnâ€™t blindly following in his grandfatherâ€™s footsteps.
â€œI prefer polygamy to having many girlfriends, which is what some married men do,â€ he says adding, â€œIf I love more than one woman, I would rather make it known to the other women in my life and make it official. If I feel like taking another wife, this is something that will be in the open and my wives would know.â€
President Jacob Zuma, also a Zulu, has three wives.
But the practice has been met with criticism. Some say it does not afford equal rights to men and women. Women are not allowed to wed more than one husband.
In a polygamous marriage, only the first wife is legally recognised, which could pose some difficulties in dividing the husbandâ€™s property when he dies.
South Africa has the highest number of HIV-positive people in the world â€” some five million.
Since having more than one sexual partner increases the chances of contracting the virus, it is understandable that Smangeleâ€™s family had reservations about her entering into a polygamous marriage.
â€œMy family was not pleased at first, but they came around eventually,â€ she says.
They are taking the necessary precautions, which include regular HIV tests.
â€œI had my last test a few months ago when I was pregnant… We are all disciplined about staying healthy,â€ she says.
The arrangements seem to have been carefully thought out down to the last detail, including how Mr Mbhele will alternate between his four wives, who all live in different parts of northern KwaZulu-Natal province.
â€œThere are seven days in a week and I have four wives. I will take turns visiting them and use the remaining three days to rest,â€ he says.
At this point Smangele, who has been quiet with her head bowed, looks up and smiles at her husband. When asked how she feels about Mr Mbheleâ€™s visitation plan she quickly responds.
â€œI believe it will work. I am used to living on my own and having him visit me on certain days so this wonâ€™t be anything new to us,â€ she says, reaching for her husbandâ€™s hand.
Mr Mbhele has three children with â€œfirst wifeâ€ Thobile, two with â€œwife-number-twoâ€ Zanele, one child with Baqinisile, referred to as â€œwife-number-threeâ€ and two children with â€œyoungest wifeâ€ Smangele.
He also has three children from a previous relationship.
He owns 100 cows and 250 goats and has a good job, so he is relatively wealthy, at least by traditional standards.