Jacob Zuma

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (WOMENSENEWS)–The rape case against South Africa’s former vice president Jacob Zuma is moving into its final days here.

Before the judge speaks, however, advocates of rape survivors say they are already discouraged by what they describe as the ordeal of the 31-year-old HIV-positive woman who is the complainant.

“If I was raped, particularly by an acquaintance, I would not report it after this trial,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, a lawyer specializing in rape and HIV-AIDS issues and executive director of the Johannesburg-based Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre.

During the trial the 63-year-old former vice president–who was sacked in June last year after an adviser was convicted of soliciting bribes for him–has arrived every day to the High Court in central Johannesburg to the cheers of hundreds or sometimes thousands. His supporters view the case as part of a political conspiracy against their preferred successor to President Thabo Mbeki. At one point they burned photocopies of a photo of the complainant on the streets outside the court and chanted: “Burn the Bitch!”

Zuma was a close personal friend of the complainant’s now deceased father. The complainant charges that Zuma forced himself on her when she stayed over at his house in Johannesburg last November. Zuma claims it was consensual. No condom was used even though the woman’s HIV-status was known.

While the blatant hostility toward the accuser has troubled many in the nation, women’s rights activists say that what has gone on inside the courtroom bothers them even more.

“For a woman to report a rape she needs support, but instead she is often shut down by family and the community,” said Delphine Serumaga, executive director of People Opposing Women Abuse, POWA. “In this particular case, she is being shut down by an entire nation.”

Sexual History DiscussedAs is common with rape trials in South Africa, Zuma’s defense team was allowed by the judge to bring up the sexual history of the complainant during cross-examination. Evidence has included a private written record by the complainant of how she was raped at ages 5, 13 and 14, while in exile during the struggle against apartheid.

“The sexual history of a rape survivor we don’t think should be in the court at all, because it puts the blame on the woman,” said Serumaga.

The defense team’s application for permission to question Zuma’s accuser on her sexual history was heard behind closed doors and those specific arguments were not public.

Those who support the defense’s approach say it is important in all cases to hear as much evidence as possible and that an accuser’s sexual history is relevant in a rape case.

A group of civil society organizations, such as POWA, have taken the opportunity of the Zuma trial to highlight the obstacles rape survivors face within the legal system in South Africa.

South Africa's One in Nine campaign.

In February, at the start of the trial, they launched the One in Nine Campaign to raise awareness about a statistic in a 2002 Medical Research Council report that found only 1 in 9 rape cases are reported to the police.

During the trial, One in Nine campaigners have often been visible outside the courthouse dressed in purple T-shirts and organizers have also hosted a number of prayer meetings in support of the complainant.

Campaigners say they support the principle of fair trial but that rape trials are generally heavily skewed in favor of the accused. They say this is especially so in cases where the accused is an acquaintance of the accuser, as in the Zuma trial, and when there is no documented physical damage.

“All the defense needs to do is to prove reasonable doubt, and that is not difficult with all the stereotypes and nonsense that surrounds rape cases,” said Samantha Waterhouse, advocacy manager at Cape Town-based Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (RAPCAN), which is part of the campaign. “Defense attorneys have the simplest job.”

Case May Be DroppedLocal press has reported that Zuma’s defense lawyers are planning to ask for the case to be dropped for lack of evidence when the trial resumes March 27.

A proposed bill to change South Africa’s rape law–redefining actions classified as rape and the level of resistance required, as well as creating a category of “vulnerable witness” and limiting use of sexual histories–might have dramatically changed the course of the trial.

Work on this bill started in 1998 and the latest publicized draft from February 2004 sets out in detail the restrictive circumstances under which the complainant’s sexual history may be raised in court.

The initial draft of the bill also replaced the term “consent”–which required prosecutors to prove the rape victim overtly opposed the sexual advance–with the phrase “coercive circumstances.” With that standard, the prosecutor would be required only to prove that forced sex took place.

The early version of the bill also described complainants in sexual offenses as “vulnerable witnesses” for which special protective measures should be taken and widened the definition of rape, which currently is limited to the penetration of a vagina by a penis.

The bill failed to pass the National Assembly in July 2003 and has since been stalled at the Ministry of Justice. The latest publicized draft in February 2004 showed many of those changes were reversed. Local media and activists have not been able to obtain an answer from the ministry on when a final version will come out.

“The bill has in the past encapsulated a lot of the changes that would make the difference (we are looking for). But now it seems that these changes have been lost,” said Waterhouse.

Rape Epidemic With 55,114 rapes reported between April 2004 to March 2005, One in Nine campaigners estimate that the low reporting rate means almost half a million rapes occurred in that 12-month span.

Looking beyond the poor reporting of rape, such advocates say the legal system often fails those who do make reports.

Sixty-eight percent of all reported adult rape cases and 59 percent of all child rape cases never go to court and only 7 percent of all reported rapes end in conviction, according to the Pretoria-based South African Law Commission.

Waterhouse–who for the past 10 years has worked with rape cases of adults, adolescents and children–said the low conviction rate in part reflects the failure of the court to understand the psychological damage of a rape victim.

In the Zuma trial, the defense team argued for example that sex was consensual because the complainant never said no properly.

Instead the complainant described how she froze in reaction to Zuma’s advances and a psychologist testified that this is in fact normal behavior especially for someone traumatized by earlier sexual abuse in childhood.

“The way the law is written now it is assumed that real rape victims say no and they fight,” said Gernholtz.

Anna Koblanck is the Africa correspondent for the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter and a freelance writer. She is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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For more information:

One in Nine:

Friends of Zuma:

Crime Information Analysis Centre – South African Police Service
Crime Statistics on Rape 2005