Rape trial highlights rift in S. Africa

With former deputy president accused, some lash out at accuser

March 10, 2006|By SCOTT CALVERT | SCOTT CALVERT,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The defendant in the courtroom is Jacob Zuma, who until eight months ago was South Africa's deputy president and who remains the No. 2 ranked official in the ruling African National Congress.

The charge is rape.

His trial, which is nearing the end of its first week, has exposed fault lines on the issue of sexual violence in a country where the rate of reported rapes is among the highest in the world, as well as tensions within the ruling ANC.

Outside the Johannesburg High Court, Zuma's supporters have thrown stones at his accuser and burned her photograph while chanting that she, too, should be burned.

Zuma, 63, faces up to 15 years in prison if he is found guilty, and he has been no less defiant, singing an old anti-apartheid song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," outside the courthouse. He was dismissed from the government after being charged with corruption.

Zuma is accused of raping a 31-year old family friend at his suburban Johannesburg home. He has said the two had consensual sex; it is not known whether he will testify in court.

The Sun does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

Some advocacy groups hope the trial will prompt the government to revise the country's 1957 law about rape, which defines the crime as sex "with a woman without her consent" but does not directly address coercion.

"In some ways the Zuma trial has made a lot of people sit up and think through issues: what they think rape is, what they think about rape," says Rachel Jewkes, director of the gender and health unit at the South African Medical Research Council.

Jewkes says she is heartened to hear men react skeptically to suggestions by Zuma's lawyer that the alleged victim's skimpy attire invited Zuma's advances. She said men have told her that they now realize rape can involve many types of coercion, not just "the barrel of a gun."

South Africa's rate of reported rapes is about four times that of the United States. From April 2004 to March 2005, the South African Police Service recorded 55,114 reported rapes - 118 for every 100,000 people. In the United States, in 2004, the rate was 32 for every 100,000 people.

Experts believe that the real numbers are far higher; one in nine rapes is reported to police, according to a 1998 study by Jewkes. Of those that are reported, 7 percent result in a conviction, compared with 19 percent in the U.S.

"There is an idea men can do anything they can get away with," Jewkes says. "Your responsibility as a woman is to protect yourself." Those who cannot do so are seen to be at fault, even by other women.

Another force behind South Africa's rape problem is the decline of family structures here. For decades, apartheid forced men to leave their families to work long distances from home in the country's gold and diamond mines, or in South Africa's cities.

AIDS is a newer threat, which wrecks families by disabling and then killing parents as well as grandparents. About 5 million of South Africa's 47 million people are believed to be HIV-positive, the largest number of any country in the world.

Charlene Smith, a rape survivor and activist, wrote an essay two years ago criticizing the government's anti-rape efforts. Her remarks brought a critical response from President Thabo Mbeki. Though Smith did not mention race in her essay, Mbeki accused her of suggesting that black Africans were "barbaric savages" and that "our cultures, traditions and religions as Africans inherently make every African man a potential rapist."

Zuma played a significant role in the anti-apartheid struggle. In 1959, at age 17, he joined the ANC and soon went into its military wing. Arrested and convicted of trying to overthrow the government, he spent 10 years on the Robben Island prison that also housed Nelson Mandela.

After his release, Zuma left the country to work for the ANC in exile. He returned in 1990 to help negotiate an end to apartheid. In 1999 Mbeki named him deputy president and gave him the task of leading a campaign for "moral regeneration."

Zuma, whose corruption trial is scheduled to begin in July, retains strong popular support, in part because of his reputation as an official who focused on the issue of poverty. When he was charged last year with corruption, supporters formed the Friends of Jacob Zuma to raise money for his defense, and it has supported him in the rape trial.

"The perception created by our media is that he has done it," says Barnabas Xulu, administrator of the defense fund. He suggests that his accuser's accusations shouldn't necessarily be believed, including her allegation that Zuma did not use a condom. She has testified that she is HIV-positive and that Zuma knew her status.

The defense fund's Web site posts its own reports of court proceedings, saying news organizations cannot be trusted to do so "without prejudice."

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