S. Africans Rally Behind Embattled Politician
As Trial of Ex-Deputy President Opens, Supporters See Rape Charge as Part of Conspiracy

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 13 -- The women who danced and sang outside the Johannesburg High Court on Monday in support of former deputy president Jacob Zuma agreed on one thing: He's no rapist.

The accuser, these supporters said on the first day of his trial, was part of a conspiracy. Or she was a frustrated girlfriend who wanted a commitment. Or she asked for money and was rebuffed. Whatever happened -- and most said they believed Zuma and the woman had sex -- did not fit their idea of rape.

"If he was raping her, why didn't she scream?" said Lindiwe Cele, 42, a nurse from a dusty township southeast of Johannesburg, without a hint of doubt in her voice. "Who heard her? There is no rape."

Zuma's legal troubles, including a corruption trial scheduled to begin in July, have opened deep rifts in South Africa's ruling African National Congress. They also have revealed sharply divergent ideas about what constitutes criminal sexual violence in a society with some of the world's highest rates of rape.

Outside the downtown courtroom, as more than 1,000 people waved signs, stomped in rhythm and sported T-shirts bearing Zuma's smiling face, the very definition of rape seemed open to debate. A middle-aged man in an orange prison jumpsuit and rusty manacles shuffled down the street holding a sign that said: "Jacob Zuma was raped."

Supporters repeated the line often on Monday, equating Zuma's ordeal -- going from the front-runner for South Africa's presidency to the possibility of prison -- to the crime reported by more than 55,000 women nationwide last year. Women's rights activists say only 7 percent of reported rapes result in convictions in an average year.

The plaintiff, her head covered with a scarf, slipped into court hours before the street rally turned raucous. She is a 31-year-old HIV-positive AIDS activist, the daughter of prominent ANC members and a Zuma family friend who was staying in his suburban Johannesburg home the night of the alleged attack in November.

Among the evidence, according to news reports, are semen stains on her underwear that have been tested for Zuma's DNA. But as often happens in rape cases, no witnesses have come forward to back her account of that night, leaving room for Zuma's supporters to embrace alternative explanations.

"The community would have known about it," said Shon Mathye, a 19-year-old student, who said her support for Zuma was not shaken by the allegations. "Women can't keep a secret to themselves."

Until legal trouble ensnared him last year, Zuma, 63, a former guerrilla leader with humble origins and a common touch, was among South Africa's most popular politicians. As a member of the nation's Zulu ethnic group that frequently battled with the African National Congress during the final years of apartheid, he was a vital peacemaker in apartheid's waning days.

His support ran deepest among union members, socialists and the poor, many of whom regarded Zuma as more loyal to their issues than President Thabo Mbeki, who often is portrayed as a pipe-smoking academic uneasy with ordinary South Africans.

Zuma's charismatic style, limited schooling and leftist politics worried some senior members of the ANC as they contemplated whom to back to become president in 2009, when Mbeki's second term ends. Mbeki's decision to fire Zuma as deputy president in June, after his financial adviser was convicted of having a "generally corrupt relationship" with Zuma, struck many backers as unfairly abrupt, given that Zuma had not yet faced charges of his own.

Prosecutors then charged Zuma with corruption, but his support among rank-and-file ANC members appeared little diminished until the filing of rape charges in December.

His most ardent followers dismissed those allegations as well, blaming them on a shadowy campaign to destroy Zuma.

On Monday, supporters donned T-shirts saying, "Innocent Until Proven Guilty!!!" Another said, "Support Jacob Zuma, Defend the Revolution." Somebody else scrawled on a cardboard sign, "We Love U Zuma."

With the backing of a truck-mounted sound system, the Zuma supporters easily drowned out several dozen demonstrators for women's rights with signs of their own: "Against Her Will, Against the Law" and "Rape Is Always a Crime."

Halala Sibiya, 24, traveled 11 hours from her village to dance in support of Zuma because of the aid of his charitable foundation, which she works for, in buying school uniforms, paying school fees and distributing food packages to the hungry.

Sibiya blamed the ANC leadership and what she regarded as a clique from the Xhosa ethnic group for the rape charges.

"They're against him," Sibiya said. "He's a Zulu."

In a brief interview Sunday, after a rally in the northern mining city of Rustenberg, Zuma attributed his enduring popularity to the belief that he had been wronged. "They have a problem with the manner in which things have been done to me," he said.

"They know me," Zuma added. "I don't think they believe I'm a criminal."

At that rally, miner Nombalela Maollolo, 34, said Zuma was loyal to the causes she cherished, including the right of women to work what are traditionally men's jobs in mine shafts instead of being confined to office work or other tasks.

"Although he has these problems, we know he'll fight for us heavy and hard," Maollolo said as she danced in half-filled stands.

At Monday's rally, Louisa Tshivhasa, 72, who wore an Mbeki button on her dress and an ANC scarf around her neck, also tried to accommodate both her affection for Zuma and support for women. She walked over to the women's rights demonstrators, picked up a sign that said, "Speak Out!" and joined in their songs.

"There is nothing wrong with that," she said, seeing no conflict in the causes. "We are both one thing."

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