Zuma Trial Exposes South Africa's Secrets
The acquittal of former South African deputy president Jacob Zuma on rape charges earlier this week marked the culmination of a two-month legal battle that grew into a cultural symbol and national obsession.
For South Africans, Zuma's trial resembled a combination of the Clinton impeachment hearings and the O.J. Simpson trial. It generated a circus-like atmosphere in and outside the courtroom and exposed deep social conflicts around issues of rape, politics and AIDS.
Zuma, the leftist leader in the ruling African National Congress, was accused by a 31-year-old family friend of raping her when she spent the night at his Johannesburg home last November. Zuma said the woman, whom he knew to be HIV-positive, had all but invited him to have sex by wearing a short skirt. He admitted he did not use a condom. Much to the fury of women's groups, the trial judge allowed testimony about her sexual history and the fact that she had previously made accusations of rape against men who denied the charge. On Monday, the judge acquitted him.
"The trial has fractured the political establishment and knocked South Africa's vaunted political stability," said the Mail & Guardian. "It has damaged much that South Africans hold dear, including gender equity and the need for national unity. Battles that seemed to have been won against tribalism and sexism -- at least in principle -- now have to be waged anew."
The trial "lifted the lid on our attitude as a society towards, and the tolerance of, sexual assault and rape," said Business Day. It showed "the extent to which rape is a blight on the nation, a blight that shows no limits to its extent and scale of depravity," said the Sunday Independent.
"The law is the law, and the law has come a long way in South Africa," wrote News24 columnist Chris Roper after the trial. "Remember how terrible it was during the years of apartheid, when the law was only for white men! Now it's for black men too. Eventually, it'll be for women as well, I guess."
The trial also illustrated the failure of the country's leadership in fighting AIDS, said the Mail & Guardian. When President Thabo Mbeki stirred controversy a few years ago by saying that HIV did not cause AIDS, the national daily noted that Zuma "did not buy into the denialism." Instead Zuma advocated what South Africans call "the ABC" approach, to abstain, be faithful and condomise.
Zuma's position has now been exposed as "shallow rhetoric," says the M&G. "He did not abstain, he is not faithful and he did not condomise. Both Mbeki and Zuma have taken the battle against HIV and Aids back by 10 years."
Zuma testified that he showered after the encounter with the woman in order to reduce his chances of getting HIV, a claim that was denounced by AIDS activists who said showering would not reduce the risk of infection. One popular joke held that Zuma would have done better to take a cold shower beforehand.
At times in his trial testimony, Zuma spoke Zulu, widely seen as an appeal to his supporters, many of whom said the rape charges were orchestrated by rivals in the ANC from the Xhosa tribes who oppose Zuma's desire to move the party to the left. "Zuma has deliberately used tribalism in his fight, undermining the ANC's century-old anti-tribal philosophy," said the Mail and Globe.
The judge's "not guilty verdict," handed down Monday was hailed as vindication by Zuma and his supporters. Zuma apologized for not using a condom and asked followers not to vilify his accuser who has reportedly left the country.
Kevin Dumouchelle contributed to this column.
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