The rape trial of former South African deputy president Jacob Zuma continues to be a Pandora’s box of shocking and bizarre revelations about the behaviour and philosophies of the man who has ambitions to become the leader of his country when Thabo Mbeki’s current and last term of office ends in 2009.
While it is true that persons accused of rape and their lawyers always come up with the most fanciful testimonies to show why they should not face the wrath of the law for violating the rights of their victims, Zuma’s court utterances are more disturbing and have an absurd quality about them because of who he is. One simply expects him to know better.
This is a man who less than a year ago was the second most powerful man in a country regarded as Africa’s most advanced economy. Being a heartbeat away from the highest office in the land, the least that could be expected of this man was that he was aware of the tenets of the country’s constitution and laws, which he had an obligation to uphold.
But far from giving that reassuring impression of a leader who was aware of his duty to serve South Africans of all ethnic and racial groups, Zuma has chosen to portray himself as someone who has been unable to rise above the confines of his Zulu culture to be in a position to navigate his way under a cosmopolitan dispensation in “a rainbow nation” as his esteemed countryman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, would put it.
South African law says, “Thou shalt not rape”. Fullstop. It does not say you may be exempted from culpability if you are Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Anglo-Saxon, Tswana, Ndebele or Sotho. But incredibly, Zuma has tried to use his Zulu upbringing to justify his actions on the night he is alleged to have raped a 31-year-old HIV positive woman, described as a family friend, without wearing a condom.
The main thrust of his defence is that he did not force his attentions on the young woman but had consensual sex with her. In an attempt to drive this point home, Zuma told the presiding judge that in accordance with his Zulu upbringing, it was not the done thing for a man to leave a woman in a state of arousal. In other words, he had an obligation to rape her whether she liked it or not or whether it was right or wrong.
South African newspapers reported Zuma last weekend as claiming that a woman could get a man arrested for this supposed dereliction of duty. It is not clear who would effect such an arrest and whether law enforcement agents in South Africa are aware of this unusual aspect of their duties.
All the same it is odd that the rest of the people of South Africa and indeed the world, only come to learn about these unusual details of Zulu culture when a powerful politician is in a spot of bother. Why are they never vocalised at any other times?
Zuma himself did not explain whether the sexual imperatives placed upon him by his culture applied only to Zulu women or any women he came into contact with. He also did not say whether as an opinion leader in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country this was an approach he would defend and promote in the context of the country’s laws or indeed its AIDS awareness campaigns.
Further eroding the credibility of Zuma’s cultural claims is the fact that they have been shot down by other South Africans. One newspaper quoted Professor Silawu Ngubane of the University of KwaZulu-Natal as saying, “Our culture is not written and there are no books that we can go back to for reference on such issues.” He said Zuma’s statement on Zulu culture was new and he was not aware of the requirement that a man must not ignore an aroused woman.
Father Joe Mdhlela of the South African Council of Churches, who was approached by the same newspaper for a comment was more to the point when he stressed that different cultures should not affect the way human beings demonstrated basic decency and respect for each other. “Culture should not be used to violate other people’s rights as it has been used in the past to degrade women.” He said no matter how scantily a woman was dressed, she needed to be treated with respect and no man should use culture to impose himself on her. More importantly, he said, offensive aspects of any culture should be revised in line with changing times.
Judging from what is coming out of the Johannesburg high court where Zuma is appearing, it is hard to believe that this man who wants a judge to believe his statement that taking a shower gave him adequate protection against infection with HIV was, less than a year ago, the head of a campaign for the moral regeneration of the nation in the face of the AIDS pandemic.
Doctors and AIDS activists in South Africa have bemoaned the fact that Zuma’s testimony in court has set back the AIDS awareness drive by many years. It has also brought into sharp focus the hypocrisy of African leaders who preach one thing and do the opposite. It raises the question of how many leaders occupying high positions in Africa today are afflicted by the same Zuma malady of perceiving everything in the context of their own tribe and ethnic groups instead of embracing a national ethos as embodied in the constitution.
The courts will have to decide whether Zuma’s strange testimony gets him off the hook with regard to the rape allegations but one thing for sure is that it has been self-indicting in all other respects.
The former deputy president has not done himself any good by posing as a prisoner of his cultural background who is ready to violate national laws and codes of acceptable behaviour in observance of his tribal beliefs.
Allowing high-ranking leaders to get away with this sort of alibi for their lapses could open an avalanche of other claims that could, in effect, render laws and constitutions useless. Who knows, the next leader to find himself in trouble could argue that according to his culture it is acceptable to solicit and accept bribes, to torture and kill political opponents, to practise nepotism and to have an elaborate patronage system in place to accommodate cronies from his ethnic group.