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Key trial forces South Africa to confront rape

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 2006


South Africa, it seems, is having an Anita Hill moment.

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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.