The ten-year anniversary of President Jacob Zuma's rape trial is a sad reminder of how the system can fail women.
Women’s Month slid back into our lives last week like a greasy Twitter follower slides into the DMs. It’s a time when anyone worth their salt will suddenly wake up to the possibilities of women, "the need to uphold rights" and the celebration of how much women contribute to society by simply being. What makes this Women’s Month even more poignant is that it is cloaked not only in the local elections but also the ten-year anniversary of President Jacob Zuma’s State vs Zuma rape acquittal.
In 2006, a then 31-year-old woman, Khwezi* (who changed her name during the trial and in subsequent years), accused the (then) Deputy President of rape and the nation was wrapped in a pending socio-political scandal. Khwezi had told the court that she was HIV-positive and a lesbian. She also outlined how Zuma, a close friend of her father and someone she considered an ‘uncle,’ had raped her one night when he had gone to visit her.
The court ruled the incident consensual.
At the time, the acquittal made international headlines and Khwezi was in turn forced to flee the country under police guard. Outside the court Zuma supporters threatened her well-being and she was met with shouts of “the bitch must burn." A photo of her also circulated.
Various institutions that were meant to protect Khwezi––all women who have gone through the same thing––repeatedly failed her. The ANC Women’s League were some of Zuma’s staunchest supporters seeking to vilify Khwezi during the trial. At the time, they stated it would be unfair to think they would turn against Zuma simply because “he was once accused of rape.”
According to Mpumi Mathabela, coordinator of the 1 in 9 Campaign, an organisation tackling the issue of sexual violence that was formed in solidarity with Khwezi, this went a step further when women in ANCWL regalia called her names and voiced opinions such as “she should feel lucky to have been raped by such a handsome man.”
The failings of the court to protect her right to body autonomy were numerous. Mathabela states that Khwezi’s sexuality was termed “a claim” (namely she only claimed to be lesbian) and her previous sexual assaults were used as a means to discredit her.
The problem with having an anniversary of all of this, other than being incredibly macabre, is that it falls within a messy melting pot of elections filled with constant pandering and polishing by political parties. As the largest party within the country, the African National Congress (ANC) was one of the most visible players in last week’s local elections. Zuma formed a core part of the ANC campaigning policy, with his image adorning a whole host of posters and being central to messaging.
Despite political predictions that the rape acquittal would have an effect on Zuma’s career, he still managed to rise to the highest seat in power, with his face now adorning a number of posters across the country whilst the nation forgets Khwezi and all she went through. One can claim that this anniversary means nothing to his political and personal life. His ability to have risen above this sets a dangerous precedent for an already volatile society.
When I spoke with Mathabela, she highlighted this plight. "During a dialogue we hosted on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the judgment we had women in the room who said that because Jacob Zuma told the nation that he showered to avoid becoming infected with HIV, men began raping us without condoms' with the men questioning 'why would the second most powerful man in the country at the time lie?'" said Mathabela. "Women in the room stated that Zuma’s acquittal had actually caused a surge in rapes in communities as men became sure ‘the justice system was on their side.’"
However, there are some who refuse to forget.
Over the weekend, Simamkele Dlakavu and members of the #Iam1in3 and #RUReferenceList movement staged a silent protest during the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) municipal election results announcement given by Zuma. Four women, dressed in black, stood up in front of the president with posters that said “I am 1 in 3,” “#,” “10 Years later,” “Khanga,” and “Remember Khwezi.” As Zuma wrapped up his speech the women were removed with extreme force by Zuma’s bodyguards and only later was their well-being confirmed when one tweeted “we are all OK.” Screaming was heard as the women were ejected from the proceedings. Their actions were condemned by some, including the ANCWL, who stated that “no head of state should be treated like this.” Some within the ANC camp called the protest “politically motivated.”
The protesters stated that they “refused to let the country forget.” The impromptu stand and subsequent online and offline reaction have been termed “a blow” to the president and ruling party who saw a great deal of political ground lost within the recently-concluded elections.
Also within the same stream, the 1in9 Campaign has sought to combat the country’s collective amnesia. On the anniversary of both their genesis and the State vs Zuma judgment, 1in9 held a demonstration in front of the Johannesburg High Court in which Zuma was acquitted.
A poem that Khwezi composed denouncing the idea of her “khanga as an invitation” and speaking on the fact that a woman should own her body formed a core part of cognitive and political framework of the protests. This was evident in one performance in which women bared their bodies and covered themselves in khangas (a traditional cloth). According to the director of the performance, Katlego Mogola said it was a statement that “my khanga is not an invitation for men…we have the right to our bodies and we are tired of being oppressed.”
The ten years marks a very sad moment for women’s rights, the ownership of their sex and sexuality and their overall safety within society and the system. As Mathabela says, ‘if Jacob Zuma and his government and supporters damage the life of one women, how can we believe any of us are safe from the same kind of treatment?”
The failure of the justice system to protect a victim of sexual assault in the case of the State vs Zuma is especially acute. Not only did it set precedent within the judicial realm, but also within society. In a country where sexual assault is pervasive, that someone is able to shake off such a charge sets a dangerous example for those who live within a paradigm where leaders are revered and held as an example. The fact that Zuma has not only managed to survive but thrive is a daunting reminder of the trade-off between the lives of the victim and the perpetrator. The ten-year reminder during Women’s Month of the acquittal is not only a sad reminder of how the system can fail women but also how far we have to go in protecting us.
Tiffany Kagure Mugo is co- curator of HOLAA! an online Pan Africanist hub that tackles issues surrounding African female sexuality, a writer and media consultant.