By Manoah Esipisu and Rebecca Harrison
JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s Former Deputy President Jacob Zuma was acquitted on Monday of
raping an HIV-positive family friend in a case that opened deep rifts in the ruling African National Congress.
The verdict saved the man once seen as the country’s next president from political oblivion, but analysts said he had been badly wounded by the sensational court case.
“I find that consensual sex took place between the complainant and the accused,” Judge Willem van der Merwe told a packed courtroom as more than 2,000 Zuma supporters massed outside the Johannesburg courthouse exploded in wild cheers.
Zuma’s rape trial has fanned tensions in the ANC, where he remains a widely popular figure and was until recently seen as the frontrunner to succeed President Thabo Mbeki in 2009.
Despite his broad appeal, political analysts say this case and a coming prosecution on graft charges will make it hard for Zuma to recover his former prominence.
“I think the judicial proceedings have been beyond reproach, but whether this means that Zuma’s political future is still intact is still in question,” said Ebrahim Fakir, senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.
“He still has the corruption trial to go through, and beyond that … There are open questions about the nature of his judgement.”
The 64-year-old anti-apartheid veteran had pleaded not guilty to raping his accuser at his Johannesburg home last November. But his lawyers said he did have consensual sex with the woman, a 31-year-old AIDS activist.
Conviction for rape could have brought a jail sentence of up to 15 years.
Van der Merwe, who under South Africa’s non-jury trial system decided the case, said the state had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zuma had intended rape, and questioned the credibility of the complainant.
“It would be foolish for any man with a police guard at hand and his daughter not far away to surprise a sleeping woman and to start raping her without knowing whether she would shout the roof off,” he said.
The rape trial, the most sensational case in South Africa since the end of white rule in 1994, has transfixed the public with graphic sexual testimony and rival protests by Zuma supporters and women’s rights groups.
Defence lawyers sought to discredit the accuser — who under South African law cannot be named — by delving into her sexual history and depicting her relationship with Zuma as flirtatious.
Zuma, an ethnic Zulu, was hit with the rape charge following a separate graft scandal last year which prompted Mbeki to sack him as the country’s second-highest official.
He faces trial in July on the corruption charges, which he has denied and described as part of a political plot by his enemies in the ANC to end his presidential hopes.
Political analysts said the rape case had damaged Zuma, particularly because he conceded that he had unprotected sex with the woman despite knowing that she was infected with HIV.
“I’m sure this is a big cause of celebration for his camp, but his credibility has taken a serious knock by the revelations that there were within the trial about how a serious leader conducts his love life, and that was a very telling part of the judge’s verdict.” said Susan Booysen, a political analyst at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand.
AIDS activists criticised Zuma, who said he took a shower to prevent possible HIV infection, as spreading misinformation about the disease in South Africa. The country is at the heart of Africa’s HIV/AIDS pandemic with some 5 million of its 45 million people infected.
But Zuma supporters remained undaunted, a sign of the power of his folksy grassroots appeal when contrasted with the chillier technocratic image often projected by Mbeki.
“He is our hero we’re going to support Zuma until he becomes president,” said Patrick Seiphalo, who along with other cheering Zuma supporters thronged through central Johannesburg after the verdict. — Reuter