Jacob Zuma, South Africa's former deputy president, was cleared Monday of charges that he raped a family friend at his Johannesburg home - a widely watched verdict that experts here say is as good for Mr. Zuma's political future as it is bad for this country's millions of rape victims.
Thousands of supporters danced and cheered outside the Johannesburg high court after the verdict - some waving signs that proclaimed "Zuma is our president" - while a jubilant and relieved-looking Zuma led the crowd in the anti-apartheid song that has become his trademark: "Bring me my machine gun."
Meanwhile, women's rights activists criticized Judge Willem van der Merwe's ruling as compounding the nation's severe problem of sexual violence. One woman is raped every 26 seconds, according to People Opposing Women Abuse, an advocacy group here. It's one of the highest rape rates in the world. Mr. Zuma argued that he and the woman had consensual sex.
"I think that the overall conclusion to draw from the case is that our legal system, as it's set up at the moment, does not provide a framework within which victims can really get justice after rape," says Rachel Jewkes, director of the South African Medical Research Council's gender and health unit. "It's extremely difficult to meet the requirements of a rape conviction in an adult rape case unless the situation is very violent."
In Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg, only 1 percent of adult rape cases end up with a conviction, Jewkes says.
In his ruling, which took about six hours to read, Judge van der Merwe had harsh words about the alleged victim's version of events, saying he could not believe that Zuma, who is 64, would rape the 31-year-old woman in his home with his daughter and police escort nearby.
"Only a foolish, overconfident rapist would enter the room of his victim, not knowing if she would shout or scream," he said.
He also said he found the woman's actions inconsistent with those of a real rape victim. She didn't call anyone after the alleged attack, he said. She didn't shower. And van der Merwe said he didn't believe her account that she "froze" when she discovered Zuma assaulting her.
"The complainant's evidence cannot be accepted," he said. "She is definitely not that meek, mild, and submissive person she was made out to be." The judge said that "pressure groups" and activists should not try to use the case for their own motives.
"This sets us a thousand years back," says Sibongile Ndashe of South Africa's Women's Legal Centre. "Now, whenever a complainant lays rape charge against a prominent person, it's not only that the rape charge has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that there's not ulterior motive."
Political experts say the acquittal is a significant boost to Zuma, who as recently as last year was heir apparent to South African president Thabo Mbeki. Although Zuma is still scheduled to face corruption charges in July, many saw the rape charge - which carried a penalty of 15 years in prison - as potentially more damaging to his reputation.
"If he's convicted, that's the end of his political career," says Steven Friedman, a research associate with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "Acquitted, he's certainly not eliminated, and will still have to be regarded as a candidate."
Many of Zuma's supporters say the African National Congress - of which Zuma still holds the No. 2 position - should select him as the ANC's candidate for next presidential election in 2009.
"It would be a victory for South Africa, a victory for the whole continent," said Paul Mofokeng, a young member of the South African Communist Party, one of the groups allied with the ANC. "He is a peacemaker. He's for the people."
But Friedman cautions that Zuma, although in many ways vindicated, will still be damaged by many of the details that came up in the rape trial.
For instance, although Zuma denied raping the alleged victim, whom he knew to be HIV positive, he acknowledged that the two had had unprotected sex. Zuma, who was once the head of South Africa's AIDS council, said he took a shower after intercourse to lessen the likelihood of contracting the disease.
He also explained that he had no choice but to have unprotected sex, because in Zulu culture, he said, leaving a woman sexually aroused could be equated to rape itself. He knew she wanted sex, he said, because she came to his house wearing a skirt, and then said good night wearing nothing but a kanga - a traditional, full-length wrap.
"The nature of this evidence has caused some people who might have supported him to think twice," Friedman says.
Even Judge van de Merwe saved some harsh words for Zuma.
"It is totally unacceptable that a man should have unprotected sex with a person other than his regular partner, and definitely not with a person to his knowledge is HIV positive," the judge said. "If you can control your body and your sexual urges, then you are a man, my son."