The media coverage of President Jacob Zuma and the “problem” of his foreign and potentially threatening polygamy reveals the long-extant gendered and raced fault lines of the presumably postcolonial relationship between Britain and South Africa. The discourses in the British press that marked Zuma as a “buffoon,” “barbaric,” and less civilized than his “distinctly monogamous” hosts can be traced to nineteenth-century settler colonial regimes and their violent attempts at reordering the lands and peoples they sought to occupy and replace. The arrival of British settlers in the nineteenth-century colony of Natal brought them into conflict with the Zulu peoples they sought to supplant and exploit. A reading of emigrant letters, missionary pamphlets, and newspaper correspondence reveals that the persistence of the practice of isithembu (polygamy) and ilobolo (the ritual exchange of cattle upon marriage) among Zulus in the face of British attempts to control their social and political formations challenged the very heart of the settler project. As British settlers sought to create and define a “modern” sexuality predicated on a heteronormative family unit, polygamy became the flashpoint in a biopolitical battle between colonists and indigenous peoples in Natal. For settlers, polygamy failed at being properly heteronormative, instead indicating an overweening hyper-heterosexuality in Zulu men. As a result, to white observers, polygamy presented a dangerous and disruptive challenge to the gendered, raced, and sexual order they wished to construct — in short, it became queer. The destabilizing queer potential of indigenous polygamy to the settler project reveals the assumptions about sexuality, civilization, and conjugality that underwrite colonial aspiration and postimperial anxieties.

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