JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — South Africa, it seems, is having an Anita Hill moment.
The country's former deputy president, Jacob Zuma, who aims to become president, is on trial for raping an HIV-positive family friend. And the case is playing out in the headlines before a polarized nation.
Back in 1991, Ms. Hill's allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas put sexual harassment in America's national spotlight. Likewise, the current case against Mr. Zuma is forcing South Africa to confront key elements of a culture of rape so pervasive that, on average, one woman is raped in this country every 26 seconds, according to People Opposing Women Abuse, a women's group here. It's one of the highest rape rates in the world.
With swirling issues of male power and women's rights, "the Jacob Zuma trial shows up all of our shortcomings in a very uncomfortable way," says Judith February of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "It's a very uncomfortable moment for us."
Yet the national discussion the case is sparking could be transformative.
"The more people speak out" in support of rape-related justice, as some prominent figures have been doing, says Ms. February, "the more women will be encouraged" to begin to see rape as unacceptable.
Zuma's 31-year-old accuser says he attacked her last November while she slept in his guest room. Zuma's defense team highlights that this isn't the first time she has made rape charges. She says she's been raped at least three times before, the first as a 5-year-old while her parents were in exile during apartheid. In a later incident with a pastor, she apparently withdrew rape charges. Zuma backers say that this hints she's a liar - or at least manipulative. Women's groups counter that the accuser's past shouldn't be unfairly exploited - and that there hasn't been a comparable probing of Zuma's sexual history.
But there's a basic dynamic at work in this conservative, patriarchal society: "Men are in control," says February. Zuma, for instance, apparently approached the accuser's mother and offered to build a fence around her home as part of a deal to resolve the situation quietly. Such low-profile arrangements are common.
Furthermore, there's a tendency to downplay cases like this one, in part because one-third to one-half of rapes are "gang rapes" that include multiple attackers - and are typically violent. By contrast, the Zuma incident - even if it was rape - is seen by many as tame.
In another twist, the accuser has admitted to being HIV-positive. She says Zuma knew this on the night of the incident. Zuma admits he and the woman had unprotected sex. But he says it was consensual.
These AIDS-related admissions highlight issues about the spread of the disease in a nation with more HIV-positive people than anywhere in the world. Critics say it raises questions about Zuma's judgment - or his HIV status. Zuma once headed the national AIDS Council and the Moral Regeneration Campaign, which encourages sexual abstinence, faithfulness, and condom use.
The scene outside the Zuma-trial courthouse has become a nexus for national debate. Women's advocates decry the country's 5 percent rape-conviction rate. Zuma supporters have burned pictures of the alleged victim. One day they threw stones at a woman mistakenly thought to be the accuser.
After court sessions, Zuma has led supporters in his trademark apartheid-era struggle song, which translates, "Bring me my machine gun." Zuma was once a member of the military wing of the African National Congress - and was imprisoned for 10 years with Nelson Mandela. The song has become so controversial it's been banned from a government radio station.
The case is set to resume Monday, at which point Zuma's lawyers are expected formally to ask the court to dismiss the charges on the basis of a weak prosecution case. This could save Zuma from potentially embarrassing cross-examination during testimony.
As with the Thomas-Hill drama, the Zuma saga isn't only about sex. Now, as then, politics swirls. Mr. Thomas declared the campaign against him a "high-tech lynching" by political enemies.
Zuma's biggest enemy may be his former boss - longtime rival and South African President Thabo Mbeki. With corruption clouds gathering, Mr. Mbeki "released" Zuma from the post of deputy president last June.
In a separate trial slated for July, Zuma faces corruption charges - ones that his supporters say are part of a plot to destroy his career.
Mbeki's firing crippled plans by the popular, charismatic, pro-labor Zuma to ascend to the presidency. Mbeki and Zuma are on opposite ends of the African National Congress spectrum - and are from different ethnic groups. As Mbeki maneuvers to guarantee a like-minded, economically conservative successor, "The Zuma trial is so important," says Sipho Seepe, a columnist and academic head at Henley Management College here. If there's a conviction, "It removes a potential contender from the throne."
Elsewhere in Africa, meanwhile, where rape is all too common - including as a tool of war - there are signs of fading impunity. Liberia's new President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf aims to curtail the sexual violence that was rampant during a 14-year civil war. Her government has eliminated bail for accused rapists and pledged to enforce tough new anti-rape laws. And Thomas Lubanga, a former Congo warlord accused of orchestrating mass pillaging and rape, made his first appearance this week at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. He is the first suspect to stand trial since the ICC was created nearly four years ago. Rights groups say tens of thousands of women have been raped in Congo in recent years.
In the end, given South Africa's patriarchal culture, many observers expect Zuma to be acquitted. Women's groups say that an acquittal could further chill rape survivors' willingness to confront attackers. Already, only about 1 in 9 rapes is reported to police, according to a 2002 report by the South African Medical Research Council.
"Anybody who's seen what this woman has gone through is just not going to want to come forward," says Dee Smythe, a gender and justice researcher at the University of Cape Town.
Yet there's new momentum from civil society and some ANC officials to boost women's rights, including by passing a sexual-offenses law. It would, among other things, introduce "coercive circumstances" - situations in which the attacker has significant power over the victim - as a relevant factor in rape cases.
Passing such laws hardly guarantees on-the-ground changes. Yet "the increased pressure that has come out of the trial" to pass the bill, says Ms. Smythe, has been "really useful."