Political messiah or sexual predator?

A rapist or the victim of a massive conspiracy to destroy his political career? Jacob Zuma remains one of South Africa's most popular politicians and may well be its next president if he beats going to jail.

An avuncular 63-year-old 'people's politician', Zuma went on trial earlier this month for the rape of a young HIV-positive Aids activist. Zuma allegedly invited the young woman, an old family friend to his plush home in a luxury Johannesburg suburb last November. During the night, he entered her room, and, according to police, he offered her a massage.

'After she declined the offer, he removed the duvet that covered her and proceeded to have sexual intercourse with her against her will and without her consent,' the official police charge sheet reads.

Zuma's shock arraignment in December was met with disbelief by many of his supporters who saw it as proof of a high-level conspiracy by supporters of President Thabo Mbeki against his possible successor and rival for party authority.

Some say Zuma's predicament mirrors that of former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, whose path to the top job seemed assured until he fell out with his boss Mahathir Mohamad in 1998, was arrested, tried for alleged corruption and sodomy. He served six years for the corruption charge but walked free in 2004 after being acquitted of the sodomy charge.

More than 5,000 people showed up at Zuma's first day of trial to demonstrate support, drowning out a smaller protest by a local rape victim support group with chants in Zulu, Zuma's home language: 'Nelson Mandela tell Mbeki to release Zuma so that he can rule the country.'


Like Mr Anwar, Zuma must also face corruption charges. He is accused of pocketing money from French arms company Thales in return for a promise to shield it from an investigation into paying bribes to win an arms contract with the South African government.

Zuma's personal financial adviser Shabir Shaik has already been convicted and handed a 15-year sentence for soliciting the bribe, allegedly with Zuma's compliance.

Legal experts note that proving corruption charges will be difficult, even with the team of forensic auditors on his trail. Rape, however, is a far more direct route to a conviction, they say, requiring only a credible victim and DNA evidence. Rape carries a mandatory 15-year sentence in South Africa and if convicted, Zuma's political career will be over.

More hangs on Zuma's conviction or innocence than the fate of one man. The trial is being billed as the most important since apartheid ended because of the fierce divisions Zuma's downfall has exposed within the ruling African National Congress.


Zuma's popularity is based on the belief among South Africa's marginalised left that he will roll back Mr Mbeki's market-oriented economics and introduce the socialist reforms many long for.

Mr Mbeki, in contrast, is seen as a remote, cold figure whose boredom at foot-stomping, dancing and flag waving ANC conferences is obvious. While Zuma gets down and energetically joins in singing old liberation war songs, Mbeki shuffles half-heartedly about looking very much like he would rather be somewhere else.


To wild cheers from the crowd at the start of his trial Zuma climbed aboard a truck outfitted with loudspeakers, grabbed the microphone and sang a liberation war song he penned himself during the apartheid struggle, called Bring Me My Machine Gun.

Mr Mbeki's presence was also acknowledged, as people set on fire T-shirts bearing his image they had bought at previous ANC gatherings.

Zuma's seamless ability to exude empathy with the mass of unemployed, poor and increasingly restive black populace has won him the respect of lower-level ANC members.


The marginalised left had resigned itself to riding out Mr Mbeki's relentless market reforms and prepared instead for his retirement in 2009, when they hope a successor more in tune with the socialist yearnings of the liberation struggle would take office. Zuma was their man.

Zuma's subsequent arrest for corruption and his dismissal from his post as deputy president by Mbeki, followed by the rape charge, have come as a blow to these hopes.

Zuma himself remains confident he will beat the rape charges, and later the corruption charges when the case comes to trial.


Each day the snappily dressed Zuma, who favours three-piece suits, listens passively as testimony is delivered. Outside the courthouse in downtown Johannesburg, his supporters sing and chant 'burn the bitch' while setting fire to posters that carry his accuser's image.

A self-declared lesbian, Zuma's accuser's sexual history is firmly at the centre of the trial. Zuma has admitted to consensual sex with the woman, but denies raping her. His lawyers have introduced as evidence the first 16 pages of her work-in-progress autobiography. In it she writes how she was raped for the first time when she was five, then twice more by different men in her early teens. She also claims to have picked up Aids through yet another rape as an adult.

Defence lawyer Kemp J. Kemp has questioned why, as a previous rape victim, she submitted passively to Zuma's advances after she told the court she had put up no resistance, nor called out for help even though an armed bodyguard was on the premises.

'I was shit scared,' she told the court.

Zuma's defence team appear to be sketching a portrait of a woman who habitually claims to have been raped, possibly with an ulterior psychological motive, or more darkly, as part of a political set-up.