Prosecutors in Johannesburg charged former South African deputy president Jacob Zuma with rape Tuesday, a development that analysts said would end the tattered political career of a man once considered the favorite to become president in 2009.
The charges resulted from an alleged attack last month by Zuma against a 31-year-old woman and family friend who was visiting his suburban Johannesburg home. South African newspapers have reported that the woman is an HIV-positive AIDS activist and the daughter of prominent members of the African National Congress, Zuma's party.
Zuma, 63, already faces corruption charges and was dismissed from his government post in June. He was released on $3,125 bail after a brief, closed hearing at a magistrate's court Tuesday morning and was scheduled to face trial Feb. 13 at Johannesburg High Court.
In a written statement, Zuma said, "I wish to state clearly that I am innocent of these charges." He added, "I regard these allegations against me very seriously as I abhor any form of abuse against women."
Zuma also announced that he was suspending his activity within the ANC. But he maintained the title of deputy president of the party, and he did not withdraw his name from consideration for presidency of the party, a post to be selected in 2007, or for president of South Africa during elections scheduled for 2009.
However, all signs pointed to the end of the career of one of South Africa's most popular figures, a man born of modest means who became an anti-apartheid guerrilla and, when multiracial democracy came in 1994, a respected political peacemaker. He was named deputy president in 1999.
"It's the end of him, at least politically," William Gumede, an author and political analyst, said by phone from Johannesburg. "This was kind of the last straw."
Zuma has spent the last several years embroiled in scandal. President Thabo Mbeki fired Zuma as the nation's deputy president in June after his close friend and financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of having a corrupt relationship with Zuma that included illicit payments.
Mbeki made no immediate statement Tuesday about the new charges. ANC leaders said they were meeting Tuesday night with the intention of issuing a statement Wednesday.
Zuma's firing produced a furious backlash from within the party and its two coalition partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party. Many rank-and-file members in all three organizations accused Mbeki of engineering the charges against Zuma as a way to stop him from becoming South Africa's next president.
With Mbeki on the defensive, Zuma managed to maintain his job as deputy president of the party and restore himself as a plausible successor to Mbeki, both as ANC and South African president.
But corruption charges against Zuma weakened him, and the rape allegations, which first surfaced three weeks ago in the Sunday Times newspaper in Johannesburg, caused even many loyal supporters to distance themselves from Zuma. Both the labor organization and the Communist Party issued statements Tuesday that were strikingly lukewarm, and without any mention of Zuma's political future.
Sexual violence is an especially sensitive issue in South Africa, which has one of the highest rates of rape in the world. Even if Zuma is exonerated, analysts said, he would be unlikely to escape the stigma of an accused rapist.
"It's a testament to the strength of the women's movement," Rhoda Kadalie, a human rights activist and newspaper columnist, said from Cape Town.
In Zuma's statement Tuesday, he acknowledged the severity of the allegations against him and said he had long supported women's rights.
"Throughout my life, in line with the policies of my organization, the ANC, I have fought against all forms of violence and abuse against women," he said.
The indictment suggests a different picture. It says that Zuma offered the woman her own bedroom to stay the night, but reappeared after she was asleep to offer a massage. When she declined, the indictment said, Zuma removed her blanket and "proceeded to have sexual intercourse with her against her will and without her consent."
Zuma's apparent political demise has left South Africa without a clear heir apparent to Mbeki, who must step down after his second term ends in 2009.