South Africa searches its soul

Date: January 1, 1970
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The bruising political row over the rape charge being investigated by police against former deputy president Jacob Zuma has become a barometer of where South Africa stands on gender violence as the Sixteen Days of Activism campaign gets under way.

The bruising political row over the rape charge being investigated by police against former deputy president Jacob Zuma has become a barometer of where South Africa stands on gender violence as the Sixteen Days of Activism campaign gets under way.
Never before has the campaign, that runs from 25 November- International Day of No Violence Against Women- to 10 December- Human Rights Day – been held in such a charged atmosphere.  
Leaving aside for a moment what did or did not happen in Zuma’s Johannesburg home on 3 November – something we may indeed never know – the unfolding story rings many familiar bells.
First, contrary to public perception, the majority of rape cases are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, often well.  In this case, the established facts are that the accuser knew Zuma well, to the point of regarding him as an uncle.
Second, the first instinct of the victim is often not to lay a charge because of the “secondary victimisation” that will arise because of the attitude of the police, of the media, of society in general, and even of the courts.  It is estimated that the 55,000 cases of rape reported last year are probably only one quarter of actual cases.
Again in this case the established facts are that the alleged victim’s first instincts were not to lay a charge, until a doctor encouraged her to do so.  Given the power forces at play in this case – as she has since put it “me against the whole country”- it could not have been a move taken lightly.
Third, in a high number of cases, charges are withdrawn following pressure from family members.  These are often prompted by the power imbalance between the alleged perpetrator, often a person of standing and influence in the community and the victim, often a woman who lacks either the emotional support or financial means to press ahead with months of court proceedings.
All these circumstances are dramatically underscored in the Zuma case, with the added dimension that the alleged victim has had to deal with the agony of the story being leaked to the media. At first she dithered. Then, after being influenced by her mother who in turn had come under the influence of Zuma supporters, she decided to deny that a charge had been laid.
One Sunday newspaper that, by its own admission got her contact from the Zuma camp, fell right into the trap of not only publishing the denial but naming the victim. Now either in exile or in police custody, and with her mother’s about turn and support, the accuser has stood her ground, leaving the newspaper in a somewhat embarrassing position.
The key question that South Africa should be asking itself is not whether political enemies framed Zuma but rather whether or not a woman’s rights have been violated.
The score card is mixed at best. With the exception of the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League and the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) that have put the rights of the woman at the centre of the debate, the silence of other political and state structures, as well as the media, on this point has been deafening.
Media analysts have taken the view that while the naming of Zuma is a breach of ethical principles it can probably be justified on the grounds of public interest, and that the media’s main concern needs to be whether it is  being used in a “dirty tricks campaign”; not whether it should prompt a debate on the rights of women.
There has been no debate at all among the ethics experts on the difference between naming Zuma, a public figure, and naming the woman, now patently the victim of secondary abuse to the extent of surrendering her personal freedom.
This raises another critical issue: the standards of accountability to which public figures, and especially one who aspires to be president, must be held. These standards are not simply about whether such a figure passes a court test (as Bill Clinton could well expound!) but on whether their conduct is absolutely impeccable and above reproach.
For South Africa, with the painful mismatch of Constitutional guarantees on gender equality on the one hand and high levels of gender violence that make a mockery of democracy for women on the other, how top politicians behave towards women must be a crucial test of their suitability for leadership.
To quote one editorial: “If Zuma and his supporters argue, as they are likely to do, that any sexual contact between Zuma and his alleged victim was consensual it would be true to say that such contact was ethically ambiguous at best. The relationship that exists between Zuma and his accuser suggests a power relationship weighted in his favour.”
Against this background, the response of the ANC, that has been at pains to underscore that there is no conspiracy campaign – rather than any concern about the conduct of its second-in-command or the possibility that a woman’s rights have been violated – is deeply disappointing. Indeed, despite strict provisions in the ANC’s code of conduct on sexual harassment and assault, the party has been content to leave the matter to the police and the courts, rather than institute its own internal investigation.
Possibly the greatest encouragement that South Africa should take out of this saga as the Sixteen Day campaign progresses – and perhaps one indicator that such campaigns are making a difference – is that the alleged victim has found the courage, as a result of the many messages of solidarity received,  to pursue her case. 
To quote CGE Chair Joyce Piliso-Seroke: “we offer our solidarity with the victim and many other women who are in similar circumstances. We hope that the time will come where those who find themselves in similar situations will report to the police without any fear that communities will turn against them but rather will receive support and solidarity.”
 Colleen Lowe Morna is Executive Director of Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service. To make a commitment to ending gender violence, as well as access information on this year’s Sixteen Day cyber dialogues go to

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