Kipling clinches the case

Delivering judgement in the Jacob Zuma rape trial, Judge Willem van der Merwe, inspired by Kipling, aimed a final comment squarely at the former deputy president: “If you can control your body and your sexual urges, then you are a man, my son.”

Van der Merwe’s judgement was impeccable and educational in its painstaking lucidity and detail. But it was this poetic obiter dictum about the presidential hopeful that may yet haunt Zuma. What are we to make of it all?

It is important not to pass over the verdict too swiftly. To his credit, the judge was not influenced materially by the various pressure groups, commentators and opposing factions. He was, of course, sufficiently attentive to these extra-legal processes to feel it necessary to address them in his judgement. But that, if anything, helps to place the legal legitimacy of the court process beyond dispute.

In terms of the material issues before him, there was a strict separation between issues of morality and politics, on the one hand, and issues of legality on the other hand. This attitude, safeguarding the integrity of due process, lies at the heart of the rationale for a not-guilty verdict, and explains why the facts that many of us found most salient to comment on in public forums weighed relatively little on the legal scale.

All that mattered, legally speaking, was whether the case had been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Given that the complainant’s narration of events was deemed to be improbable, coupled with an unfavourable impression of her more general character, as well as a flimsy assessment of her psychological state, the judge had to declare Zuma not guilty. On the face of it, this seems to be a sound legal judgement.

Sadly for Zuma, however, once the celebrations are over, he will have to deal with the more difficult fact that moral and political errors are sometimes worse than successfully evading legal ones. This brings us back to Van der Merwe’s paraphrasing of Kipling.

It is clear to the millions who were tuned in to their radios or glued to their TV screens that the judge was not impressed, and rightly so, with Zuma’s personal judgements on the night of the incident in question. Not only had he been unable to control his bodily and sexual urges, remarked the judge but, more stingily, had failed to do so as a “man”.

This remark was, of course, a case of poetic license, rather than sexism. No doubt the judge intended to make the more general but less polemical point that any sexually and morally mature person would have acted otherwise. And his dismissive tone in setting the issue aside did suggest that the idea of a shower reducing one’s chances of contracting HIV is a non-starter.

All this adds up to a portrayal of Zuma as a character not fit for leading a “moral regeneration project” — let alone the country. These political ramifications will be more difficult to fend off than meeting the legal benchmarks for staying out of prison.

Eusebius McKaiser is a PhD philosophy candidate at Oxford University

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