The South African Succession

10 May 2006

The South African Succession

By Gwynne Dyer

You couldn’t make it up. Former South African deputy president Jacob Zuma, defending himself in court against a charge of rape, explained that the woman who brought the complaint, a family friend less than half his age (she is 31, he is 64) who was staying in his home, had signalled that she wanted to have sex with him. How? By wearing a knee-length skirt and sitting with uncrossed legs. So what was a gentleman to do?

If the woman truly wanted to have sex with him, Zuma pointed out, then the rules of Zulu culture obliged him to oblige her. Not to have done so when she so clearly wanted it would, by the rules of Zulu culture, have been tantamount to raping her. In other words, he had to have sex with her in order not to rape her.

Indeed, so great was Zuma’s desire to do the right thing that he had unprotected sex with her despite the fact that she is an AIDS activist who makes no secret of the fact that she is HIV-positive. There was no condom handy, he explained, and “everybody knows” that men don’t often get the HIV virus from women, and besides, he had a shower afterwards.

Jacob Zuma has had no formal education, but he is not generally seen as a stupid man. Perhaps he really believes that heterosexual men who take showers are safe from AIDS (despite the fact that he was married for almost two decades to a medical doctor who ended up as minister of health). Or perhaps he is secretly HIV-positive himself, and so he doesn’t give a damn. We’ll never know, because the prosecutor didn’t demand a blood sample from him.

Her only justification for doing so would have been that he had recklessly endangered the health of another person (which could lead to a life sentence). But it wouldn’t have led to a stiffer sentence in Zuma’s case even if he had been convicted, since the woman he was accused of raping was known to be HIV-positive already.

In the end, on 8 May, Zuma was found not guilty by the judge, Willem van der Merwe, who explained his decision by saying that “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.” Van de Merwe added that the alleged victim “has a history of making false accusations of rape.”

This history was helpfully provided by a string of defence witnesses who claimed to have been accused of raping or trying to rape the complainant, though she mostly denied knowing them. They did not face strict cross-examination, however, since by the rules of the court (not to be confused with the rules of Zulu culture) if she denied knowing them, there was no more to be said. Just choose to believe them or to believe her. The judge believed them.

Zuma emerged from the court to be greeted by the usual mob of cheering, mostly Zulu supporters, and joined them in a rousing rendition of “Awulethu Umshini Wam” (Bring Me My Machine-Gun). And although he still faces a further and quite separate trial on corruption charges in July, it already feels as if he is back on track as the leading contender for the presidency of South Africa when Thabo Mbeki retires in 2009. Goodbye “rainbow nation”, hello Zimbabwe South.

Jacob Zuma was a real hero in the anti-apartheid struggle. He spent ten years imprisoned on Robben Island and almost twenty years in exile, ending up as the Chief of the Intelligence Department of the African National Congress. As the highest-profile Zulu in an organisation whose leadership has been dominated by Xhosas (including both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki), his ascent to the posts of deputy president of South Africa and deputy leader of the ANC was swift and smooth. The problem is that he is a ruthless demagogue and, in many people’s eyes, a crook.

Last June Zuma’s financial adviser, a Durban businessman called Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for corrupt dealings in connection with the government’s purchase of warships, a proposed waterfront development in Durban, and lavish spending on Zuma’s residence in Nkandla. The trial judge described the relationship between Shaik and Zuma as “generally corrupt”, Mbeki asked for his resignation as vice-president, and he was committed for trial this July on corruption charges.

His supporters on the left of the ANC and his devoted Zulu followers claim that the rape charge was further evidence of a plot to thwart Zuma’s presidential ambitions, but it was actually an unfortunate coincidence. The case had little chance of success (the vast majority of accused rapists in South Africa go free), but it was a huge distraction from the corruption issue, and his exoneration on the rape charge will cast doubt in the public’s mind on any subsequent conviction for corruption. So Zuma may really be back in business, with a good shot at the succession when Mbeki retires in 2009.

That would not be happy news for South Africa.


To shorten to 725 word, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Jacob…worse”)