In 2004, then-deputy president Jacob Zuma became a central figure in the Schabir Shaik corruption trial. On June 2 2005, Shaik was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison. After 12 days of spirited media speculation about Zuma’s future, then-president Thabo Mbeki relieved his deputy of his duties. Mbeki told a joint sitting of Parliament that “in the interest of the honourable deputy president, the government, our young democratic system and our country, it would be best to release the honourable Jacob Zuma from his responsibilities as deputy president of the republic and member of the Cabinet”.
On the night of November 2 2005, Fezekile Kuzwayo claimed that Zuma raped her in the spare bedroom of his Johannesburg home. In 2006, the name Khwezi, given to Kuzwayo to protect her identity, entered into public discourse accompanied by frenzied vitriol, conjecture and death threats. Before charges were even laid, Zuma’s political prospects were beginning to look like they were on their last legs.
Most of his high-level political supporters could neither respond to nor explain away these new charges as they had the corruption charges. As the rape trial progressed, reports surfaced that the South African Communist Party was divided on how to address the issue of Zuma and the party’s relationship to him.
Many members of the ANC Youth League supported Zuma but some in the SACP were sceptical about the value of rallying behind a particular person instead of focusing on governance.
Throughout the court proceedings, the public would hear about Khwezi’s bisexuality, the number of times she had been violated, beginning with an assault at the age of five, and insinuations stemming from her alleged sexual proclivities.
At the very least, Zuma had had wholly inappropriate sexual contact with the daughter of a brother in arms. But it was Khwezi who bore the brunt. The details — tawdry, salacious and potentially deadly — were spread across the political spectrum: Nondindwa. Liar. Troubled. Pariah. Martyr. Pawn.
Burn the bitch
The court found the state had failed to prove the case against Zuma‚ accepting his version that he and Kuzwayo had consensual sex.
In May 2006, Zuma was acquitted and his supporters felt vindicated by what they saw as a political honeytrap that had been hatched with the sole purpose of humiliating him.
Soon after the verdict, Khwezi and her mother were offered asylum in the Netherlands, after their home was burnt down and Khwezi received threats along the lines of “burn the bitch”. There, the mother and daughter struggled, later leaving for Tanzania before returning to South Africa.
But her story would return to haunt Zuma just as his political life began noticeably to unravel.
At the conclusion of the local government elections in August 2016, Zuma’s speech was overshadowed by four black women, standing silently in front of him and facing the audience, holding up placards saying: “I am one in three”, “Ten years later”, “Khanga” and “Remember Khwezi”.
Zuma, already under fire for his party’s poor showing in the elections, was clearly caught off guard, but he soldiered on and continued with his speech.
The women were violently removed from the event by the president’s security team but the damage had been done. Local and foreign media watched as these four women, much like the woman who the country had chosen to forget, silently showed up Zuma in what came to be known as the #RememberKhwezi protest.
Two months later, Kuzwayo died from an undisclosed illness. News of her death was confirmed by her family in a media statement.
“It is with our deepest sorrow that the Kuzwayo family announces the passing of our daughter, Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo. In our family she was lovingly known as Fezeka‚ and in the public domain her supporters called her Khwezi‚” the statement read.
The predictable hand-wringing and platitudes soon followed as Khwezi’s true identity was made public.
She had become a stain that wouldn’t wash out from South Africa’s consciousness, as subsequent events would show.
Never forget Khwezi
On December 7 last year, shortly before the ANC’s 54th national elective conference, when the ANC’s presidential race was becoming muddied, the party’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, in an interview with Radio 702 host and political analyst Karima Brown, was cornered. In a game-changing exchange, the deputy president was asked if he believed Zuma had raped Khwezi. At that time, Ramaphosa had everything to lose.
“She put her evidence before the court and, when you are dealing with issues of gender-based violence, rape, the general tendency is to sometimes dismiss,” Ramaphosa told Brown.
“I know how difficult and painful it is for a woman to garner up the courage and say: ‘Yes, I was raped.’ It must be one of the most difficult decisions she had to make, so, yes, I would believe her.”
This was a crushing embarrassment for the president but also showed how Ramaphosa appeared confident of winning the ANC’s presidential race. This statement may well have been read as Ramaphosa indicating how he would neither buttress nor uphold the status quo as so many — including the ANC Women’s League, that bastion of intersectional feminism, and the ANC Youth League — had done.
For Ramaphosa to make such a statement, albeit a measured and cautious one, cast him as the antithesis of Zuma. For those who saw Zuma and the ANC as one entity, this was a welcome and much-needed change from the cult of personality that was threatening to implode the party.
The presidency released a statement the following day: “The presidency has noted the media reports attributed to the deputy president of the republic, who is quoted as having stated that he believed the version presented by Khwezi in the criminal proceedings between State vs JG Zuma when he was interviewed in one of the radio stations.
“The rape allegations against President Zuma were properly considered by a judge of the high court. Having evaluated the totality of the evidence, the court acquitted the president of the rape charges. The presidency affirms the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the primacy of the courts as the final arbiters in disputes in society.”
Shortly after that statement was released, ANC Women’s League president and Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini spoke at a rally in KwaZulu-Natal: “We want to say: ‘Comrade Cyril, if you want to speak out about violence against women and children, talk about yourself. You must open up because you say you know how difficult it is for a woman to take a stand.’”
Slap in the face
Khwezi may be gone but her spectre, like Banquo’s ghost, reappears in what must surely be one of the final acts of Zuma’s presidency. It’s now 2018 and Ramaphosa is president of the governing party, trying to mitigate the potential damage to the ANC inflicted by his predecessor.
It has since emerged that, after the December conference, Ramaphosa apologised to Zuma during their private meeting at John Langalibalele Dube House in Durban for publicly expressing his views about Kuzwayo, as reported by the Mail & Guardian.
Two days later, City Press reported that Ramaphosa had allowed the presidential recall debate to proceed at the party’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting because he was “livid” over reports that he had apologised to Zuma for comments he made about Kuzwayo when the two had met in KwaZulu-Natal two weeks prior.
The supposed conciliatory stance that he had taken behind closed doors further illustrated the perception of Ramaphosa being less a skilled negotiator but rather a two-faced smooth-talker still under the thumb of Zuma, showing who was really in charge.
The agenda of the meeting between Zuma and Ramaphosa in Durban had been a secret and that information could only have come from one source: Zuma’s camp.
Initially, Ramaphosa was said to be trying to avoid “humiliating” Zuma, to stave off the fate that had befallen Mbeki in 2008, when the then-president was unceremoniously removed by the ANC’s NEC.
Zuma’s recall charge was led by newly elected NEC member David Masondo and veteran Bheki Cele and did not meet much resistance from Zuma loyalists, who had already accepted that the president’s time would soon be up.
“How can they show respect for someone who has no respect for you?” an ANC insider reportedly asked. “So his [Ramaphosa’s] attitude was to let the dice roll.”
It wasn’t rampant looting, a rape charge, a series of scandals or compromised leadership that set Ramaphosa off. Male posturing and a bruised ego finally sealed the deal for him. Not only is he complicit in Kuzwayo’s life being ruined, he used her to score points with the public.
In Fezekile Kuzwayo, South Africa’s politicians had found an object with which to silence opponents, to pontificate about and to elevate themselves.
It’s not enough that Ramaphosa said he “believed her” years after a harrowing trial that stripped her of her identity, threatened her safety and livelihood, and led to exile.
It means nothing and everything that Ramaphosa chose to skip over to the right side of history after she died. He didn’t stand up for her when it mattered most, nor did he protect her from being revictimised by his compatriots. What Ramaphosa did was bide his time, serving under a man who, it can be inferred from his statement, he believes to be a rapist.
Kiri Rupiah is the social media editor of the Mail & Guardian