South Africa

Zuma Trial Heightens Rape Awareness

A coalition of women's rights and other activists want a policy rethought on women's rights issues. (Photo: Alexander Joe / AFP-Getty Images)

I was raped four times screamed the headline in a South African Newspaper recently. At the center of the story: South Africa's top gospel diva, Rebecca Malope.

Malope, 38, revealed to the Sunday Sun that a late uncle and a family friend raped her in 1977 when she was 11 years old. The stunning revelation came on the eve of closing arguments in the rape trial of former South African deputy president Jacob Zuma.

Malope, one of the most celebrated musicians in South Africa, added her voice to the chorus lamenting the government's failure to tackle the country's tragic rape problem. Zuma's trial has raised the ire of women in a country in which, according to People Opposing Women Abuse, a women's group here, one woman is raped every 26 seconds. It's one of the highest rape rates in the world.

Pressure from newspapers, nongovernmental organizations and the opposition has left the government so far unmoved. Zuma, widely loved by supporters of the ruling African National Congress (A.N.C.), has put the case into a quandary and thwarted a coalition of women's rights and other activists who want a policy rethought on women's rights issues.

In court recently, Zuma explicitly told how he had sex with the woman.

"I touched her and kissed her. When I touched her private parts, she was ready." He asked if she had a condom. She said "no." He told her he did not have one either. When he hesitated, she said he could not "leave a woman in that situation." Zuma continued: "And I said to myself, I know as we grew up in the Zulu culture you don't leave a woman in that situation, because if you do then she will even have you arrested and say that you are a rapist."

Zuma's critics say his attitude at the trail is a motivating message to keep potential sexual offenders from engaging in the same practice.

"This trial is more about sexual politics and gender relations than it is about rape, and epitomizes the lifestyle of so many cadres in exile and in the camps, which continues much in the same vein post-1994. And that is why there is a lid on the report on sexual violence in the A.N.C. camps and could partly explain why the H.I.V./AIDS pandemic is not declining. The leaders at the top live by example …

"As for J. Z.'s supporters, I can fully understand why they are angry," noted Rhoda Kadalie in an article in Business Day (April 6).

With swirling issues of male power and women's rights, "the Jacob Zuma trial shows up all of our shortcomings in a very uncomfortable way," said Judith February of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "It's a very uncomfortable moment for us." The more people speak out in support of rape-related justice, as some prominent figures have been doing, said February, "the more women will be encouraged" to begin to see rape as unacceptable.

Zuma's 31-year-old accuser, a family friend who is H.I.V. positive, said she was attacked last November while she slept in his guest room. He denies the rape charge, but not the fact that he had unprotected sex with the woman, or that he knew she was H.I.V. positive. Zuma's defense team highlights that this isn't the first time she has made rape charges. She said she's been raped at least three times before, the first as a 5-year-old while her parents were in exile during apartheid. In a later incident with a pastor, she apparently withdrew rape charges. Zuma backers say that this hints that she's a liar — or at least manipulative. Women's groups counter that the accuser's past shouldn't be unfairly exploited, and that there hasn't been a comparable probing of Zuma's sexual history.

The South African Aids Council expressed horror over details emanating from the trial. Their statement expressed anger at the police for allowing Zuma's supporters outside the court to commit "ghastly acts of hatred and intimidation" including burning images of the complainant and underwear.

It also says the media coverage of the complainant was "inappropriate" and created "horrific and unethical victimization" through its coverage of her H.I.V. status, her manner of dress and her sexual past, based on violations that were committed against her during her childhood.

The council said that bringing up the sexual violations that the complainant experienced as a 5-year-old and as a 13-year-old were improper.

The group also condemned statements made by Zuma while he was testifying on the stand.

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