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South African Official Cleared of Rape Charges

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. First this. In South Africa a stunning verdict in a trial that riveted the nation. Former Deputy President Jacob Zuma was acquitted today of rape charges. Zuma's supporters celebrated in the courtroom and in the streets of Johannesburg. And joining me now from those streets is Craig Timberg of the Washington Post. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CRAIG TIMBERG (Reporter, Washington Post): Thank you.

BRAND: Well, give us some details first of all about the case against Zuma. What was he accused of?

Mr. TIMBERG: He was essentially accused of raping a family friend, a thirty-one-year-old woman, who's HIV positive and who has known, you know, Jacob Zuma's 64 years old, so this woman's more than thirty years younger. And he's accused of going into a room where she was staying in his house and raping her.

BRAND: And he basically said that this was consensual sex and that, as far as I understand, is what the judge concluded as well.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah. It was really very striking. The judge in the end accepted his account of what happened that night almost in its entirety and rejected her account and the account of the prosecutors and the police almost entirely. I mean he bought everything he said, pretty much.

BRAND: Citing what evidence?

Mr. TIMBERG: You know, this is not the kind of case where there was an abundance of forensics evidence to go. You know, there weren't a lot of bodily injuries or that sort of thing. And so it was kind of a classic he said/she said situation. And you know, the judge found her to be essentially a very uncredible witness.

And towards the end of his ruling today, as he read it out, he listed his way through various allegations of rape that she's made against other men over the course of quite a few years. And I actually lost count. It was either five or six. And some of those were, you know, were not very well backed up, and I think that it was the repetitive nature of these allegations that ultimately undermined her credibility in the eyes of the judge.

And at one point he said it's quite possible that she perceives any sexual behavior as threatening, which was interesting.

BRAND: Hmm. Well, he also, Jacob Zuma, also had made some comments during the trial that were quite controversial. Tell us about those.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah. It's been a fascinating couple of months here in South Africa, you know. He at one point said that he knew that this woman was seeking sex because she wore a short skirt, which later turned out to be a knee-length skirt. And that she sat a certain way. And so, you know, for those who wanted to see Jacob Zuma as having behaved very badly in this encounter there was certainly a lot of evidence.

And the kind of things he said, you know, may well linger beyond the trial. Among them that, you know, after the encounter with this HIV positive woman, they took a shower. That he believed that by taking a shower that he was protecting himself somehow, which was widely ridiculed by people here and elsewhere.

BRAND: And this was someone who was in charge of a government agency at one time.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah. He was the chairman of the South African National Aids Council.

BRAND: And he was also considered a likely candidate for president. So what does this verdict mean for his future.

Mr. TIMBERG: Look, I mean, clearly the verdict's good for him in every possible way. You know, he's a free man and he can resume his political career and he clearly has a lot of supporters around the country. Now, I think his support has been meaningfully damaged among the people who tend to be decision-makers within the African National Congress, and so, you know, it sort of seems unlikely that he's going to be able to rehabilitate himself.

But certainly, you know, any way you slice it, this was a really good day for Jacob Zuma. And if he is to become a viable candidate for president again, certainly you would point to today as the beginning of that. Now, there's lots of problems, including the corruption that starts in just a few months. But you know, the political situation here remains very unsettled. And I don't think anyone entirely counts him out at this point.

BRAND: Well, and what does it mean for the rights of women and for rape victims? I understand that South Africa has a fairly high rape rate per capita.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah. Arguably the highest in the world. And it's also clear that quite a large number of women who are raped never report it, they never become part of the statistic, which is now the highest in the world. So it's clearly a catastrophic societal problem that reaches across every level.

Look, the women's groups are very unhappy with this verdict and unhappy that it was made and unhappy with some of the things the judge has said about his woman who, the judge described her as not meek and mild, that she was perfectly comfortable, you know, requesting sex when she wanted it, etcetera.

So all of that, as you might imagine, has not gone over well with women's groups.

BRAND: Thank you, Craig Timberg, Washington Post reporter from Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lorenda Reddekopp
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