Four children, my mother used to say, is the perfect number. She’d point to her ladder of children – boy, girl, boy, girl, all two years apart, and sigh: Perfect Pigeon Pairs. Perfectly Perfect.

My devoutly Catholic mother often talked, wistfully I thought, of her restraint at not popping out more children.

She cited examples of Catholic Irish families where it was not unusual to have a brood of a dozen or more children. How wonderful, my mother would enthuse, to have a house filled with the laughter of children. It’s a great way to learn how to share she’d say, an admonishment of the four of us for wanting to keep what was ours, ours.

It was always a mystery to me as to why my mother wished she’d had more children. She barely coped with four. She was an anxious mother, fearful. She hated mess, and a messy house is standard with small children. She was useless in a crisis. Like the time Anton and Shaun and I put our little sister Antonette into a homemade go-cart and pushed her down a hill. She fell into a manhole and split open her head. All useless-in-a-crisis mother went into panic mode, flapping her hands and praying while my sister bled into her lap as my father drove them to the hospital. So, I have no idea why she thought more children would bring her joy. 

My lovely dad was more practical. These unborn children would grow up, he’d mutter under his breath, and have to be educated: school and university; they’d need dental work and shoes and holidays.

He wasn’t wrong. The majority, 98%, of Irish parents surveyed in 2017 admitted that while they would like to have large families, they limited the number of children because of the prohibitive cost of raising them. These days four children is thought of as a large family.

I think even my mother would have been aghast at the thought of 23 children. That’s one short of two dozen, and that’s how many children former President Jacob Zuma has fathered.

The baby born to 24-year-old Nonkanyiso Conco on April 12th – the day Zuma turned 76 – is his 23rd child. It’s been reported that he has already paid lobola and that Nonkanyiso will soon become his seventh wife.

At 24, she will be the youngest in his harem, 52 years his junior. For Zuma, the open mouthed astonishment from the majority of South Africans is perplexing. He can’t see what all the fuss is about.

I watched him defending his polygamy in a television interview a few years ago. Politicians (I’m paraphrasing) have mistresses and bastard children that they hide while pretending to be monogamous. He, on the other hand, loved his wives and was proud of his children. He didn’t keep them a dirty little secret.

It must be said that there are good reasons to have a lot of children.

·      You have a host of potential donors if you need a kidney.

·      You don’t have to hire baby sitters – the older ones can look after the young’uns.

·      You have a choice of grown up children to turn to if you need help raising bail money.

·      Things are supposed to be cheaper when bought in bulk and reduced rates apply for larger groups

But there are as many – maybe more? – downsides to families that run to the dozens. For a start, they make a very large contribution to global warming. Huge.

Human overpopulation has been identified as one of the most pressing environmental issues. A family of dozens (Zuma, his wives, their children, the spouses, the grandchildren) contributes significantly to environmental pollution, to the consumption of natural resources like fresh water, arable land, fossil fuels…

Then there’s the conundrum: how do you get the entire family to the beach for a day out? You’d need a large minibus, maybe two. You certainly wouldn’t fit a family this size into a taxi. They only (legally) allowed to carry 15 passengers.

Then of course there’s Christmas lunch. No, scotch that. Think of an ordinary family Sunday lunch.

Forget the Sunday  roast. You’d need a whole lamb. Every Sunday. My friendly butcher informs me that a lamb on the spit feeds about 45 people.

Then think of how many sacks of potatoes you’d have to roast; how much duck fat you’d need for that, how many bundles of spinach, how much chakalaka…

How would you time it all so that the food stayed hot until it was time to serve? My anxious mother, the panicky worrier, would be paralysed by fear: she had trouble getting a meal ready for a family of six!

The cost of a large family is exorbitant. Research shows that it costs around R90,000 a year to raise a child – that is with no inflation or growth. The child rearing time is calculated from birth to 23, which includes supporting your child until they find their first job.

Multiply R2,7-m by 23 and you get to a figure of R62,1-million.

And that sum does not include the cost of holidays or hair braiding or tennis lessons. It excludes the cost of the wives, their shoe bill, weaves, therapy…

The 2017 Irish survey found that big sacrifices are needed in big families. Parents mentioned not replacing the car that often, not eating as much, going out less, spending less – a lot less – on themselves, fewer holidays… Those were just a few belt tightening measures. We did not, during his presidency, see any of this parsimony.

I have come to the conclusion that having 22 (now 23) children is one of the reasons that Jacob Zuma was forced to sell his soul to the Guptas.

R62,1-million is hard to come by. Even when you’re the president of a country.