BAD START: Milton Mbhele with his four brides Happiness, Thobile, Simangele, and Zanele at their recent wedding in Weenen.Pic: JACKIE CLAUSEN. 26/09/2009. © Sunday Times.
BAD START: Milton Mbhele with his four brides Happiness, Thobile, Simangele, and Zanele at their recent wedding in Weenen.Pic: JACKIE CLAUSEN. 26/09/2009. © Sunday Times.

THE ill-celebrated Milton Mbhele of KwaZulu-Natal, who recently married four women in one day, has actually done much damage to the institution of polygamy.

Worse, he has actually undermined the integrity of men and women in polygamous arrangements.

Mbhele has fostered the misconception that polygamy is a "grab a woman" phenomenon. Despite its imperfections, like many other types of relationship, polygamy is an orderly form of a marriage union. Among the key considerations in a polygamous family are peace, respect and stability.

Much of the instability is based on competition between wives. The husband, as head of the family, has an obligation to ensure that there is no spousal competition - or at least that it is minimised.

So one of the cardinal unwritten rules of polygamy is that there must be a significant time gap between the marrying of various spouses.

Put simply, there must be distance between the marrying of the first and the second wife. This allows the first wife enough time to enjoy significant quality time with the husband and children. Essentially, there should be a period of at least six years in between marrying of the various spouses.

This obviates impressions that the husband strayed at the prime of the existing relationship.

One crucial issue here is that women in polygamous marriages have rights and entitlements as individuals and as a collective. As individuals wives are entitled to quality time with husbands.

They are entitled to the making of fond memories with their husband and children. Marrying one woman at a time and staying a significant period of years before marrying the next allows the husband to meet these non-negotiable obligations.

In marrying four women at once Mbhele undermined this cardinal rule. He has created the fallacious impression that as a husband to these four women, he has all the rights while the wives have obligations towards him - they have to compete for his attention.

Mbhele is oblivious to the fact that active competition between wives is actually a recipe for disaster. History is loaded with stories of gruesome acts of violence and murders inspired by competition for spousal attention. In fact, he m ight have unwittingly invited witchcraft into his home.

Let us not even talk about reproductive health issues - a key consideration for responsible polygamous men.

The other unwritten cardinal rule of polygamy is that there must be a significant gap between children of the various wives. There should at least be a five-year gap between children of wives A and B. This encourages older children to treat younger ones as siblings, not competitors.

Mbhele is obviously unaware of the role of the "big-sister-big-brother" phenomenon, which helps the nurturing process. Surely his children are unlikely to protect each other. They'll instead compete in a manner that fuels hatred and resentment.

Worse, he won't be able to bond individually with his children and consequently compromise his ability to discharge his duties of providing quality time to all family members.

Mbhele has also failed to recognise the role played by a senior wife in polygamy. Marrying all four on the same day practically means there is no senior wife. Despite their age difference and differences in ilobola made to each, the fact that they were married on the same day renders all four equals.

Usually a senior wife in polygamy assumes the god-mother or matriarch status. She is a guiding force in the family and contributes immensely to an orderly family. In Mbhele's case they are all in a learning phase. No guidance at all. It might be a case of the blind leading the blind.

For those intent on practicing polygamy, let us offer a brief step-by-step guide to responsible and successful polygamy:

First, there must be a significant gap between the first, second or other succeeding wives. This reduces competition and promotes respect based on seniority.

Second, having a significant gap between wives helps minimise the impression that you are sleeping with multiple women at the same time. Remember sexual health considerations!

Third, the first wife must have achieved so much in her life and family as to minimise resentment and unhealthy competition. It is almost impossible to fulfil one's obligations towards two or four wives - in the case of Mbhele - equitably at the same time unless you are superman!

Fourth, observe the cultural practice of allowing the senior wife space to set terms of reference for the next ones. This builds harmony and respect.

Fifth, make sure children of the senior wife are relatively old enough to play the big-brother-big-sister role. This way children will respect and protect each other.

Remember, if they are of the same age and their mothers are endowed differently money-wise, they will resent each other since the moneyed-mother will buy things that the other can't afford.

In the eyes of children it is the father who will be favouring children of the other house. We all know what follows resentment among children!

Sixth, be in a stable material position to support different houses of your family. You don't want to stretch your wallet too thin to the extent that you invite poverty into your family.

We make this observation proceeding from a premise that responsible men have and must fulfil all obligations to their families, including ensuring food security, health, wellbeing, education and so forth. If you can't buy text books for your children, don't even think of taking a second wife.

Polygamy cannot be subsidised by the state through child support grants.