A trial that both sides will lose
Observations on South Africa Stephen Bevan
Three weeks into the rape trial of the man once seen as South Africa's next president, and the deep divisions at the heart of the "rainbow nation" have been exposed as never before.
In essence, the question before Court 4E of the Johannesburg High Court is simple: did the former deputy president Jacob Zuma, as the state alleges, invite the 31-year-old, HIV-positive daughter of a fellow veteran of the African National Congress to stay over at his home and then force himself on her in the guest bedroom? Or was this, as the 63-year-old father-of-ten claims, a consensual act with a woman who has made "similar false charges" against others and has a history of psychological problems?
For Zuma, who was fired from the government last June but remains ANC deputy president, a guilty verdict would surely be the end of his political career. That he is also due to face trial for corruption this summer demonstrates the scale of the challenge before him. But this trial is about much more than one man's fate; it is about the future direction of the country, or so Zuma would have us believe.
From the start, his supporters have claimed the charges are part of a plot to destroy him by those within the ANC desperate to stop him from succeeding President Thabo Mbeki in 2008. Zuma's lead counsel, Kemp J Kemp, has made this assertion central to the defence, asking almost every witness which ANC "camp" they support.
What divides the camps? To the Zuma supporters singing and dancing outside, their man is "100 per cent Zulu boy", whereas the government - and by inference the anti-Zuma plotters - are predominantly Xhosa. To others, the case is a left-right struggle in which Zuma champions ordinary people against a business-friendly government.
Mpho Mosehle, a 26-year-old Zuma supporter, has yet another explanation: "Zuma was the ANC's head of intelligence. He knows who spied on the ANC when they were in exile. If he becomes president, he would eliminate them."
None of these theories bears much analysis but there is no doubt that Zuma, and his trial, have become the focus for every grievance going.
And if the trial has exposed the country's political divisions, it has also revealed a deep ambiguity in attitudes to women.
Certainly, anyone watching Zuma's supporters burning pictures of the complainant and shouting "Burn this bitch!" could be forgiven for thinking she was the one on trial. Says Themba Mthembu, 38: "In our culture, rape is not a crime." Given that there were 55,000 reported rapes in South Africa last year (five times the level in the UK), it appears his is far from an isolated viewpoint.
And the complainant's treatment inside the court has been little better. After a controversial decision by the judge to allow evidence about her sexual history, she was grilled for almost four days over claims - made in a private journal leaked to the defence - that she had been raped no fewer than six times. It was a painful lesson for future rape victims about what they could expect in court.
So confident is the defence that it is expected to try to have the case dismissed imminently, but even if it succeeds, the revelations about Zuma's behaviour may have already put paid to his presidential ambitions.
The complainant said that after her father died in exile, Zuma became a father figure to her - she refers to him as umalume (uncle) - yet Zuma, who has two wives and is engaged to a Swazi princess, has admitted having sex with her. What is more, though he knew she was HIV-positive he used no protection. What does that say about the former head of the presidential task team on HIV/Aids?