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Zuma Rape Trial Impacts South Africa


After a three-month trial, former South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma will learn whether he will be convicted of the rape of a 31-year-old family friend. However, events both in and outside the court have compelled South Africans to re-examine how they think and act on a wide range of issues, from constitutional democracy to violence against women.

The first indications that the rape trial of Jacob Zuma would be controversial came on the hot December morning when he was formally charged. In contrast to the way other suspects are treated, the hearing of the former deputy president took place behind closed doors, with the media and the public prevented by his security detail from entering the court.

Ferial Haffajee, the editor of the Mail and Guardian newspaper, says the events of that day were a clear violation of the constitution and prompted swift reaction from the media.

"During Mr. Zuma's first appearance on this charge in the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court, the South African National Editor's Forum [SANEF] raised a huge complaint, because it was held behind closed doors, he was allowed to sit with his lawyers, and that clearly was not equal treatment, he was not being treated like any other citizen under the law," Haffajee noted.

Following the editors' complaints, all the following proceedings involving Zuma have been open to the media.

But more controversy followed when the trial got under way in February. There have been vigils and daily demonstrations by Zuma's supporters outside the court, some of them violent.

Many South Africans were shocked when some protesters, including some women, sang sexually explicit songs that insulted the woman who accused him of rape. When Zuma appears they sing, in isiZulu, the old struggle song Awuleth' umshini wami or "Bring Me My Machine Gun," which, since he was charged, he too has taken to singing at public events.

Barney Pityana, vice chancellor of the University of South Africa in Pretoria, argues that these behaviors threaten the judiciary and, as such, are an attack on the constitution.

"The fact that you can find a situation which I think is novel in this country, where people can actually organize a demonstration or a vigil outside the court, it can only be that, as a way of influencing or putting pressure on the judicial system against a particular way, or for a particular decision," he noted. "That for me is just such a bad development, that those of us who are serious constitutionalists should be very worried about it."

Pityana, a veteran of the struggle against apartheid who headed the country's Human Rights Commission for five years until 2000, says that it is unacceptable that Zuma and political leaders who support him fail to speak out against such actions. He says they are abrogating the contract they made with the people of South Africa when they forged the constitution 10 years ago.

"It's a problem," he added. "And I think it happens because there are some people who believe that all these laws actually don't apply to them. That being part of the ruling party, you can actually galvanize popular support, to protect you against the law itself."

Pityana and others also warn that such public and strong expressions of animosity toward the complainant are dangerous in a country where, according to some estimates, one woman is raped every 10 minutes.

Lisa Vetten of the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconcilation says just one-in-ten raped women reports the crime, often because of such hostility in their communities.

"And while it might not be as visible and as ugly as in the Zuma trial, it is certainly happening on a very regular basis in our courtrooms and out in our streets, already," she noted. "And certainly when one looks at why women do withdraw charges or keep quiet, it is precisely because of their fear of how others are going to respond."

Many South Africans have also expressed concern about the impact of the behavior around the trial on men. Haffajee, the newspaper editor, says that much of the discourse from Zuma's supporters sends a message that men are controlled by their libidos and that it is up to women to keep themselves safe. Pityana says he fears particularly for the young men in South Africa.

"Because, I think, I really do believe, which is one of the points I made, is the young men who are there, are seeing in Mr. Zuma a role model, and there are the ones who are going to go around and saying it's 'OK to rape. It's OK if a woman doesn't do what I want her to do for me, [for me] to do as I please," Pityana said.

For many women in particular, some of the events inside the court were no less damaging than those outside. The defense won approval from the judge to introduce evidence of the complainant's prior sexual history, including a rape that occurred when she was just 12-years-old. Using this evidence, the defense launched an attack on the credibility and integrity of the complainant, prompting outrage from women.

And Zuma's testimony on HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, caused further outrage. Both he and the complainant testified that he did not use a condom in the encounter; and that Zuma knew that the woman has HIV. Zuma told the court that he had sex without a condom, because he knew that it was difficult for a man to be infected during consensual sex. He also said that he showered afterward in order to minimize the risk of infection.

His comments were criticized by AIDS experts. And Francois Venter, the president of the Southern Africa HIV Clinicians Society, says that Zuma, who at one time headed the National AIDS Council, knows better.

"I think it's very, very destructive," said Venter. "I think that senior figures should be more responsible, especially senior figures that have good levels of knowledge. The reasons why he did this are interesting to speculate on, but I think it is unbelievably damaging."

Venter says these comments are so damaging because even though South Africans are very well informed about HIV and AIDS, they have failed to change their behavior accordingly. South Africa has the highest incidence of HIV in the world.

Zuma testified in his native tongue, isiZulu, and resorted frequently to tradition and culture to explain his behavior during the encounter, which he says was consensual, and following it - such as when he said he would be willing to enter into a traditional marriage with the complainant and pay "lobola," or bride's price for her.

He also testified that he had sex with the complainant when, he said, they both realized neither had a condom, because it is unacceptable in Zulu culture to discontinue a sexual encounter once a woman is aroused. The prosecutor argued that no South African culture demands that a man have unprotected sex with a woman. She said rather than Zulu-culture, it is Zuma-culture.

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