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Outcomes and Outrage – Reflecting on the jacob zuma verdict

Opinions on the Zuma rape trial by Liepollo Lebohang Pheko

22 May 2006

The past few weeks have been characterised by heated debate and unfettered anticipation about the verdict of the Zuma rape trial. The matter has polarised the nation; not only across gender lines but also across class, ethnic and political lines. Having been in downtown Johannesburg when the verdict was announced, I imagined that the anticipated carnage that would have occurred had the verdict been different, might have been physically inescapable. As it was the vuvuzelas, cheers and hooters indicated that to some citizens’ estimations, justice has been served.

In addition to the woefully pedestrian prosecution, “Kwezi’s” case was hampered by several social and political complexities. I hold the theoretical view that race, culture, gender, class, and ethnicity are not “external variables” but rather inherent features in an ongoing process of constructing how we understand and participate in the larger social, cultural, and political discourse. This was best encapsulated by two divergent views expressed in the wake of the trial – one by a lawyer colleague and the other by a teller at my local Pick’n Pay. The former stated that he would certainly be attending the ANC congress next year in order to keep Zuma out of the presidency adding that he attributes blame for this debacle to Mbeki’s aloof and unapproachable leadership style. The young sister at the till jubilantly told me that she would again vote ANC if Zuma were President adding that she as a Zulu woman is tired of Xhosas. Upon my rejoinder that tribalism is not healthy for any nation she heartily responded – “They started it”.

The clear ethnic divide that this case has opened is like a fine dye in which clothes have been soaked. It will take several washes to examine the extent to which the colour has been set and several more to remove it should it be found not to our liking. This case exacerbates and evokes every moment of tension and hatred experienced during the scourge of “black on black violence” and the bloodshed in Kwa Zulu-Natal before the elections of 1994. It is moments such as this that should remind us that the match-stick lit in Rwanda in 1994 could be ignited in any country whether through Western interference or the interests of multi national companies. Rwanda, the Darfur region and Angola for example are chilling reminders that no-one may be left to recall “who started it”.

The notion of justice is fragile and often fluid. This case illustrates that the legal process has run its course and that political interests are willing to subvert this process for other ends. Whether this is a slap for President Mbeki, an attempt to divert attention from the upcoming corruption trial, or an endeavour to install a working class president to supposedly ensure “workers rights: even though Jacob Zuma has never stood by workers during his cabinet tenure, the loser here is the credibility of any woman who walks into any police station or courtroom to lay a charge of rape.

The law, police, lawyers and judges in this or any matter are not amorphous beings without bias but people with opinions on various types of sexual behaviour and orientation [witness Judge van der Merwe’s chastisement of Zuma], perceptions of correct physical and emotional responses to rape, understanding of culture [perhaps thus the court’s indulgence on Zuma’s questionable revision of Zulu culture] on religion, on politics and even dress-code, thus the running commentary on the Kwezi’s combat trousers in sharp contrast to Duduzile Zuma’s power-dressed chic.

In all this we could not forget that no matter how close Zuma may have been to Kwezi’s parents, Kwezi herself is not of notable ‘political royalty’, is not a BEE magnate and has no access to the sort of political and media spin doctoring at Zuma’s disposal. As the TV media dismissively described the hasty exit of gender activists from the courtroom, many in tears, the ultimate victims of the process were left decimated – the rape of authentic moral regeneration, the rape of any woman’s right to make self determined choices about her social and private life, the rape of male accountability, and the rape of trust.

The breach includes trust in positive cultural practices, trust in elders, trust in men who believe consent is implied by accepting a dinner date, trust in other women who cried “burn the bitch”, trust in the legal system and trust even in our own ability to relate to each other as one dignified nation rather than one fragmented by skewed understanding of gender, ethnicity, class and political orientation.

When our essence has been torched and all that remains are the carcasses of the nation we could have been and the people should have been, who indeed will be left to recall what greatness and humanity truly are.

The writer, Liepollo Lebohang Pheko, works for the Gender and Trade Network in Africa as Senior Policy and Dialogue Specialist.