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Zuma rape acquittal hands ruling party a hot potato

[South Africa] Former deputy president Jacob Zuma thanks his supporters outside the Johannesburg High Court. [Date picture taken: 02/13/2006]
Jacob Zuma, South Africa's former deputy president (Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN)

South Africa's former deputy president, Jacob Zuma, was acquitted of rape on Monday, a verdict met with wild celebrations by supporters outside the Johannesburg High Court and dismay by women's rights activists.

In a judgement delivered live on television and radio, Judge Willem van der Merwe questioned the reliability of the complainant, a 31-year-old family friend, who claimed she was raped in Zuma's home in November last year.

The judge said that in his opinion, consensual sex had taken place. But he rebuked the 64-year-old leader for having sex with a woman half his age, and for not wearing a condom, even though he was aware she was HIV positive.

The case has gone to the heart of two fundamental issues in South Africa: the succession battle within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and the crisis of sexual violence in a country with an incidence of reported rape that is among the highest in the world.

Zuma's supporters have alleged that he was the victim of a political conspiracy to destroy his career and prevent him from succeeding President Thabo Mbeki, who ends his second and final term in office in 2009.

The left wing of the party has embraced Zuma as their champion, in apparent opposition to Mbeki's centralised and technocratic style of leadership. The long-running battle, despite the party's attempts to paper over the cracks, has been described as the ANC's worst crisis since it won power in 1994.

With his acquittal, "the ANC will have to deal with a bullish Zuma camp, feeling vindicated in their argument that they were victims of political intrigue", said political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi.

The first test will be the question of reinstating Zuma, who resigned from his party functions over the rape allegation. ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe said the party was waiting to hear from the populist leader as to whether he would take up his duties again.

"Things are going to get worse. What you have here is a highly divided leadership; the capacity of the party to manage the Zuma saga is low," said Matshiqi.

All eyes are on the ANC's leadership election in 2007, in which supporters of Mbeki and the 'left' will fight out in the party's branches who the next president will be. But with the leadership split, Matshiqi noted, the ANC's "ability to predetermine the election outcome is [also] low".

Ahead of the ANC ballot, Zuma faces another legal hurdle in July this year over corruption charges related to a controversial arms deal. If he is convicted, it would finally torpedo his chances of leading the party and his country.

For the duration of the 26-day trial, Zuma's supporters outside the high court were faced by gender groups like People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA). The rights activists were part of the "One in Nine" campaign, which refers to the number of women who have been raped and have reported it.

Between April 2004 and March 2005, 55,114 cases were reported to the police.

Carrie Shelver, public awareness manager at POWA, said although obviously disappointed by the verdict, "if you acknowledge that only seven percent of rape cases are successfully prosecuted, I can't say I'm surprised".

She said the judgement added to a climate "where women feel that the criminal justice system is ineffective" in protecting them from sexual violence.

Zuma's testimony also revealed some uncomfortable attitudes, including that because the complainant wore a skirt she had signalled her sexual availability, and the universally condemned idea that by taking a shower after sex he had reduced his risk of HIV infection.

News reports on the two days preceding the verdict said the complainant would be assisted by the authorities to settle abroad for her own safety. During the trial, Zuma supporters burnt pictures of her, with some chanting, "burn the bitch".


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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