Opinion  :: Columns  :: Jottings from Johannesburg


From bedroom to boardroom
Peter van der Merwe
Published: 07-JUL-06

In the eyes of his millions of supporters, former South African deputy president, Jacob Zuma, has taken a huge step towards becoming the next president of South Africa after being acquitted of rape following a lurid High Court trial.

In fact, at a hastily convened press conference the day after the verdict, Zuma wasted no time launching his political comeback attempt, saying he was willing to run for election as president if the ruling African National Congress would nominate him to succeed Thabo Mbeki.

Addressing the assembled media hordes, he said he was looking forward to �resuming the presidency � er, deputy presidency of the ANC�. Was it just a simple stumble? Or was it a Freudian slip? Zuma went on to say that he has never actively sought leadership, and will serve the ANC in whatever capacity it sees fit. We will take that statement with the bag of salt it deserves.

The rape trial held the nation in thrall for weeks, but it was sordid stuff. Zuma was accused of forcing himself on an HIV-positive lesbian who was not only half his age, but the daughter of a friend of the family. In court, he steadfastly maintained that she had given him the come-on by wearing a knee-length skirt, that the sex was consensual, and that in his Zulu tradition, no man worthy of the name would ignore a woman who was so clearly ready for him.

Much to the horror of women�s rights groups, and the unrestrained delight of his supporters waiting outside the courthouse, the judge believed him. In many quarters it was seen as a conservative verdict, with the judge scolding Zuma for his inappropriate behaviour, but alluding to the accuser�s sexual history as part of his justification for the outcome.

The verdict certainly did nothing for the fight against HIV, or women�s rights. But as most commentators agree, the bitter reality is that the trial was never about women�s rights, but the vicious succession battle raging within the ruling ANC.

The trial uncovered yawning divisions within the ANC leadership, and if nothing else, has thrown the cat among the pigeons as far as choosing the next president of South Africa goes.

President Mbeki is on record as saying he wants to be succeeded by a woman president, which is seen by many as a calculated move to remove Zuma from the succession race. Zuma dismissed this comment in as cordial a fashion as he could, saying that was Mbeki�s personal opinion and that the real decisions are taken within the ANC�s structures.

Zuma remains convinced that the trial was part of a greater political conspiracy against him, but did not give any details when pressed hard on the issue in the press conference. But while he pointedly refrained from hanging out any of the party�s dirty laundry in public, close associates say Zuma feels angry and betrayed by certain figures within the ANC. Most notable among these is Intelligence Minister, Ronnie Kasrils, who was even scheduled to testify against Zuma on what he sees as trumped-up charges.

At the press conference, Zuma focused on damage control, issuing a public apology for having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman and declaring himself a committed supporter of women�s rights. He even defended the right of his 31-year-old accuser to engage in the justice process.

Of course, the populist Zuma is far from home free. Despite his acquittal, he faces an uphill battle to regain his former political prominence, particularly given that he faces an even more damaging trial on separate corruption charges in July. As one television reporter put it, he now goes from the bedroom to the boardroom, as it were.

If � and it�s a big IF � the 64-year-old Zuma somehow dodges that bullet, it would be a brave man who would bet against him assuming the highest office in the land.

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