February 13, 2006

S.Africa’s Zuma fights for future in rape trial

By Manoah Esipisu

JOHANNESBURG -- Besieged by angry protesters, a South African court on Monday launched the rape trial of former Deputy President Jacob Zuma -- a man once seen as the likely next leader of Africa's most powerful country.

Zuma, 63, arrived at the Johannesburg High Court as police dressed in riot gear squared off against hundreds of his supporters chanting slogans and dancing in the streets.

Zuma is charged with raping a 31-year-old AIDS activist and longtime family friend in November.

The rape case follows a corruption scandal which last year saw President Thabo Mbeki fire Zuma as his deputy, effectively removing him as the frontrunner to succeed to the presidency in elections in 2009.

Zuma faces a separate corruption trial later this year on the corruption charges, which he has denied and described as a vendetta by his political enemies in the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Zuma's defense lawyers immediately asked presiding Judge Bernard Ngoepe to remove himself from the case, arguing that Ngoepe's move to issue search warrants in connection with the corruption case had cast doubt on his impartiality.

"The impression is that you went with what the state said about the accused in issuing the warrants, and the state said very bad things. The accused was not allowed an opportunity to respond," lead attorney Kemp Kemp said.

The prosecution opposed the request. Ngoepe said he would rule on it later on Monday, although he noted "one must never create an impression to the public that accused persons can pick or choose their judges."


Zuma's accuser in the rape trial arrived in court on Monday under heavy guard, her face veiled amid official fears for her security.

The young woman did not appear in the courtroom, but her name was on a list of some 29 witnesses expected to be called in including Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils, who local media said was among the first people she called following the alleged incident.

Zuma remains widely popular among grassroots ANC members, more than 1,000 of whom turned out on Monday in a carnival-like protest outside the courthouse to voice their support for the man many affectionately call "JZ."

As a lorry loaded with loudspeakers blasted a popular pro-Zuma song, protesters hoisted posters proclaiming "Jacob Zuma for President" and "Jacob Zuma is the Best."

Police formed a protective cordon around a small rival demonstration mounted by anti-rape activists, who clutched banners reading "Rape is Always a Crime" and "Against her will, Against the Law."


Political analysts say a guilty verdict in the rape case could see Zuma in jail for many years.

An acquittal, on the other hand, could mark the start of a political resurrection, depending on the outcome of the corruption trial due to start in July.

The graft case could ultimately hinge on the outcome of an appeal by Zuma's former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, whose trial on corruption charges last year implicated Zuma. Shaik is appealing a 15-year sentence.

The rape charge has deepened ANC divisions which broke into the open over the corruption case, pitting pro-Zuma factions against loyalists gathered around Mbeki.

Both Mbeki and Zuma have repeatedly stressed the ANC remains united and will not be undone by the political ructions caused by Zuma's trials.

But tensions within the party remain high and look likely to sharpen as the ANC prepares to vote next year to pick the person likely to replace Mbeki when he stands down in 2009.