23 days that shook our world

In 23 days, the Jacob Zuma rape trial has shaken our world. Regardless of the outcome, we are in an altered state.

The political damage is incalculable, with the ruling African National Congress now an openly divided and faltering movement. This has had a domino effect on the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which have floundered and fractured in the face of damaging charges against a man they ardently backed as the country’s next president.

The trial has been fought against the backdrop of a bitter succession war between Mbeki and Zuma. Both have been fatally wounded.

Mbeki’s support in the ANC has crumbled, with the party faithful refusing to accept that he will anoint a leader; on the streets outside the trial, his name has been mud. “Tell him we are sick of him, tell him that. Tell him we still believe JZ will be president,” Zuma supporters stridently declared outside the Johannesburg High Court.

But even Zuma’s most diehard supporters privately acknowledge that he cannot now be president, regardless of the trial outcome.

When he appeared on corruption charges last November in Durban, the crowd of supporters was estimated at 10 000-strong. It dwindled to a couple of hundred emotionally charged fans outside the Johannesburg High Court when he first appeared in March for his rape trial.

Most had been bussed in from KwaZulu-Natal. In general, they expressed the view that Zuma was a pawn in an ethnic struggle for power in the ANC.

The trial has fractured the political establishment and knocked South Africa’s vaunted political stability. It has damaged much that South Africans hold dear, including gender equity and the need for national unity. Battles that seemed to have been won against tribalism and sexism — at least in principle — now have to be waged anew.

The political cost


The divisions in the ruling party came seething to the surface at the ANC national general council in July last year when Mbeki faced an internal rebellion against his technocratic and centralist style. While Mbeki had succeeded in persuading the party’s national executive committee to drop Zuma from active party work, the grass-roots forced a humiliating climb-down.

The rape trial has crystallised divisions and forced individuals into open camps. In managing the political fallout, the party has unsuccessfully tried to present a unified front. In a statement released after last year’s crucial November 19 national executive committee meeting, Zuma was forced to reject his repeated claim that he was victim of a plot.

But soon afterwards his supporters lambasted this as a PR exercise. “The PR exercise is designed to try and walk the ANC through a crisis. But you cannot walk through a burning house and leave a body behind,” said a Zuma aide.

The trial has fuelled, rather than dampened, claims of a political conspiracy against Zuma, who in fact repeated the allegation as part of his trial defence. While he is regarded as a spent force as presidential candidate, he is still a power-broker as the ANC gears up for its crucial 2007 conference.

ANC Youth League

Since judgement in the Schabir Shaik trial, which fingered Zuma as party to a “generally corrupt” relationship with Shaik, the youth league has loudly joined the chorus of those claiming a political conspiracy — led by Mbeki — to thwart Zuma’s succession to the presidency. They have ignored an ANC NEC directive in November last year that all demonstrations in support of Zuma should be coordinated through the office of the secretary general, and have been visible and vociferous outside the Johannesburg High Court during Zuma’s rape trial.

Open divisions have emerged in the league, with deputy president Reuben Mahlaloga being axed because he took Mbeki’s side.

South African Communist Party

The case has entrenched the divisions in the SACP that blew open in November last year when a paper written by deputy national secretary Mazibuko Jara, What colour is our flag? Red or JZ?, was leaked to the media. The document described the party’s support for Zuma in his corruption trial as a “strategic lapse”, and called for “a party retreat and reorientation on the JZ matter”.

Members of the party’s central executive committee recently said the deepening fractures in the SACP over the saga are the “worst in the party’s history”. Party members who support a Zuma presidency — mainly the Young Communist League — have pitted themselves against senior party members, mainly CEC members and provincial leaders, who argue that Zuma is not a convincing champion of the left.


Zuma’s diehard supporters in Cosatu, including general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and president Willie Madisha, have fallen silent since rape charges were brought against Zuma. In contrast with the ANC Youth League and, to some extent, the SACP, the absence of Cosatu members outside the Johannesburg High Court has been noticeable.

In November last year Cosatu held a press conference where it qualified its support for Zuma pending the outcome of the rape allegations.

Cosatu’s women’s wing has pushed for a more activist stance on women’s rights and sexual violence.

Gender and HIV/Aids

The trial has aroused women’s fury. The defence strategy hinged on revealing the complainant’s sexual history to attack her credibility. This, in turn, provoked anger at the years-long delay in passing the Sexual Offences Act, designed to facilitate rape prosecutions. In addition, Zuma’s testimony revealed his Neanderthal attitudes to women and sexual violence. During the trial, he referred to the vagina as isibhaya sika bab’wakhe — her father’s kraal.

Zuma’s testimony also revealed that he knows little of HIV/Aids prevention, despite his former leadership of the South African National Aids Council. His view that post-coital showering can reduce the risk of HIV infection has become something of a national joke.

Tribalism and culture

A member of “The Friends of Jacob Zuma” outside the court explained the trial thus: “The ANC was established by Zulus, then the Xhosas took over and now they don’t want the Zulus back in the seats. So they brought the rape charge.” Zuma has deliberately used tribalism in his fight, undermining the ANC’s century-old anti-tribal philosophy.

Zuma’s assertion that his action was guided by Zulu culture was widely condemned as a smokescreen. Sexism, tribalism and leadership failure on HIV/Aids were grotesquely combined in his defence of unprotected sex — that it was against Zulu culture to leave a woman in a state of arousal.


While Judge Willem van der Merwe has presided with a firm and impartial hand, the semi-farce of the selection of the trial judge has harmed the independent standing of the judiciary.

Transvaal provincial division Judge President Bernard Ngoepe acceded to an application by Zuma’s counsel to recuse himself, but not on the legal merits. Controversially, Ngoepe said he would take into account the highly political nature of the case.

His deputy, Judge John Mojapelo, asked to be excused for personal reasons, while the third option, Judge Jeremiah Shongwe, cried off because Zuma had fathered a child with his sister 30 years ago in exile. Will South Africa always have to find retired white judges to hear difficult political cases?

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Vicki Robinson
Guest Author
Rapule Tabane
Guest Author

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