(WOMENSENEWS)--Jacob Zuma is well on his way to becoming the international face of South Africa and, in a greater sense, the African continent.
Last week, 4,000 delegates of the African National Congress--essentially South Africa's sole governing political party and the primary resistance to half a century of apartheid--selected Zuma as the group's head.
In practical terms, this means the 65-year-old Zulu politician is poised to become the nation's next president in 2009, when current leader Thabo Mbeki's term ends.
Against all odds, Zuma has seemingly survived career, and in some cases, life-threatening challenges, including apartheid-era imprisonment, exile and corruption charges.
But even his staunchest supporters couldn't have predicted how well he withstood being tried, and acquitted, in 2006 of raping the daughter of a family friend, a 31-year-old woman with HIV.
Defending himself, he noted that the sexual interaction was consensual, then assured critics his health wasn't jeopardized as he'd taken a shower afterwards. This from a married man who once headed South Africa's AIDS-prevention effort and claimed the woman had seduced him by wearing a short skirt and sitting provocatively.
His supporters during and after the trial not only included friends, colleagues and Zulus throughout the country but also the ANC Women's League, which had long stated a desire to see a woman assume the president's office after Mbeki.
With Zuma now assuming party leadership, his ascendancy is all but guaranteed. On the occasion of his acquittal in the rape case, the Women's League released a statement that it remained opposed "to women abuse, regardless of the perpetrator."
On a continent where rape and sexual assault are rampant, particularly in Darfur, the eastern Congo, Liberia and the Horn of Africa, it was only a matter of time that a head of state directly tied to the degradation of women would be elected to govern.
Daily, four South African women die from gender-based violence, a contributing factor in the country maintaining one of the highest murder rates in the world.
There are heroic efforts to repel the tide of impunity and apathy in regards to women's rights, such as those led by the NISAA Institute for Women's Development, a Johannesburg-based nonprofit that has organized public rallies and marches. Change must happen not only in the public realm, but within the government as well.
As hard as it may be to believe, many South African men are not fully aware of what "rape" is.
Three years ago, a national study of South Africans between the ages of 10 and 19 found that 58 percent did not view "forced sex with someone you know" as rape while another 30 percent of all respondents agreed that "girls do not have a right to refuse sex with their boyfriends."
Faced with such attitudes and the fear of extreme opposition and stigmatization such as that which occurred in the Zuma sex trial--the accuser was vilified in the public arena for potentially damaging his career--it isn't surprising only 1 in 9 women in South Africa report being raped.
Just as disturbing is the attitude of the clinicians entrusted with responding to rape survivors.
A survey of government health services found that a third of medical personnel working in South African rape centers do not believe rape requires medical treatment. It has been well documented that staff often withhold medication from rape survivors, even when they are known to have been exposed to HIV. Less than half offer private rooms to patients of rape.
Jacob Zuma notwithstanding, other South African men are stepping forward to work with women to improve enforcement of women's constitutional rights and pass a "sexual offenses" bill.
More must happen, and soon.
With the dismantling of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black African president, South Africa included gender equality amendments in its constitution but enforcement has been grossly lacking.
In a nation borne of social liberation and struggle, a greater fight for changing cultural attitudes about women has to be fought.
Jimmie Briggs is the author of "Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War."
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For more information:
One in Nine: Solidarity With Women Who Speak Out:
"South Africa Rape Trial Dashes Hope for Change":
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