Skip to main content

South Africa was on edge today, anticipating a verdict in the trial that riveted the nation for the past three months with accusations that former deputy president Jacob Zuma, still one of the country's most powerful politicians, raped a 31-year-old AIDS activist.

The defence has argued that Mr. Zuma, 64, and the woman, who testified she considered him an "uncle" from their days in exile fighting apartheid, had consensual sex in his bedroom last November. His lawyers say the rape allegation is part of a politically motivated effort to discredit Mr. Zuma -- who was widely believed to be the likely next president of the country -- but failed to produce much evidence to support that contention.

The prosecution says that Mr. Zuma abused his position as a "father figure" in the woman's life to manipulate her into spending the night in his Johannesburg home, then went to the guest room where she was sleeping and had intercourse with her even after she made clear that she did not want to, holding her arms at her sides.

Mr. Zuma testified for several days, always polite and at ease on the stand, but two aspects of his testimony had the country agog. In the first, he told the court that although he knew the alleged victim was HIV-positive, he had unprotected sex with her because he "believed the risk to be minimal" of getting infected himself. And then, he said, he had a shower to further reduce the risk.

Mr. Zuma is the former head of the National AIDS Council here, in the most-infected country in the world, and these two statements -- both without medical basis -- prompted howls of disbelief and outrage from AIDS activists. But many admitted that his beliefs are widely shared, which suggests why HIV infection rates keep climbing here.

Second, Mr. Zuma's daughter, Duduzile, 23, testified that the alleged victim, who cannot be named under South African law, went to see her father in his library on the night of the incident wearing only a kanga, a traditional wrap that covered her from armpits to knees.

Then Mr. Zuma himself testified that earlier in the day, the complainant had met with him wearing a knee-length skirt, and crossed her legs so that he could see part of her leg above the knee. Both father and daughter testified that these were obvious signs, in their culture, that she sought to have sex with him.

Mr. Zuma also testified that when he was in bed talking to the alleged victim, he could tell that she was aroused, and therefore he was obliged to have sex with her, notwithstanding their age difference, her HIV status or his wives (he is reported to have three). "In Zulu culture," he said, "you don't just leave a woman . . . she will have you arrested and say you are a rapist."

Mr. Zuma's testimony has divided the country on race, and particularly on class lines. While there have been many outspoken white critics of his statements to the court, and a handful of members of the black elite have also criticized him, the bulk of working-class people responding to opinion polls or call-in radio shows, particularly those who are also ethnic Zulus, agreed with his interpretation of culture and said a young woman who wore a knee-length skirt to his house has no business alleging rape.

Every day of the trial, large groups of Zuma supporters gathered outside the court. They heckled the prosecutors, the alleged victim and her supporters, going so far as to burn pictures of her and chant "Burn the bitch."

Mr. Zuma and his supporters have been criticized here for failing to distance themselves from these antics or direct the crowds to modify their behaviour.

Mr. Zuma's defence team, led by a burly and dishevelled lawyer named Kemp J. Kemp, sought to paint the complainant as "an accomplished liar" with a "sexual pathology" of making false rape allegations. Under cross-examination, she testified that she was raped as a child when living in African National Congress communities in exile, and was sexually attacked several more times as a teenager.

Her allegations were, on one hand, seen here as badly undermining her credibility. However, women's groups here have pointed out that South Africa's staggering rates of sexual violence mean that her testimony is not, in fact, unlikely. A woman is reportedly raped here every 26 seconds, although just 5 per cent of these attacks result in prosecutions.

Her testimony also served to prompt the first hesitant public conversations about sexual abuse in the ANC camps, which a few former anti-apartheid activists came forward to say was in fact rife. One defence witness admitted that she had sat on an ANC tribunal that found a man guilty of an improper sexual relationship with the complainant when she was a girl of 13, though the man was never criminally charged with rape.

State prosecutor Charin de Beer introduced phone records that showed a frantic series of phone calls from Mr. Zuma's assistants and supporters to the complainant and her mother in the days after the incident. His lawyers argued that his offer of money to the complainant to drop the charge was in no way an admission of guilt.