Pambazuka News

The Zuma rape trial: A year of mourning

Johanna Kehler

2007-05-09, Issue 303

Johanna Kehler assesses the social impact of the Jacob Zuma rape trial for women in South Africa.

On 8 May 2006, a highly politicised, publicised and, in many ways, unjust trial came officially to an end, when judgement in the Zuma rape trial was handed down.

Many will remember this day, as the ’Zuma judgement’. It sparked a wide range of responses. Anger, shock and disappointment were as much part of these responses. Once again, the justice system failed to protect a victim/survivor of rape – ‘Khwezi’, a gender and HIV/Aids activist, who had the courage to speak out, claim her rights and demand justice.

The trial raised many questions about the adequacy of the criminal justice system in ensuring equal access to justice and facilitating a fair and just trial.

It especially highlighted the inadequacy of the sexual offences legislation, which is meant to protect and not victimise a rape victim or survivor.

Moreover, the trial, while causing theoretical debates about the admissibility of a complainant’s prior sexual history into evidence, clearly showed how the introduction of a complainant’s prior sexual history, and in this particular case sexual orientation, taints the proceedings.

A year later, as many of these debates continue, HIV/Aids and women’s rights activists are still dealing with the impact of the trial. In addition to the many legal and political implications of the trial proceedings and subsequent judgement, the social impact on communities and societal perceptions continues to influence and shape the work of activists.

One of the many issues raised was that of HIV prevention, including the argument about a shower as a means of preventing HIV infection.

While this may have raised reactions from laughter to disgust, especially considering that the statement came from ‘an expert’, the former chairperson of SANAC, the long-term impact of this statement on communities and societal perceptions raises serious concerns.

The statement, as ridiculous as it may seem, is nothing less than an insult; especially viewed against an estimated 1500 new HIV infection per day.

Already challenged by the seemingly inadequacy of many of the HIV prevention efforts, activists are now engaging with communities in shower debates.

Moreover, the concepts of risk behaviour and individual responsibility, as crucial aspects of prevention, have been seriously tainted by the trial. Zuma will be mentioned as proof that it is ‘okay’ and ‘not risky at all’ to engage in unprotected sex, even though the HIV positive status of the sex partner may be known.

Similarly, the trial re-emphasised notions that a woman’s clothing is an indication of her preparedness and willingness to engage in sex; and that a woman’s prior sexual history is of relevance in determining whether or not the alleged rape did occur.

While these outcomes not only fundamentally threatens a woman’s right to personal autonomy, freedom and dignity, they also perpetuate societal beliefs that victims/survivors of rape ‘asked for it’, by virtue of ‘inappropriate’ clothing and prior ‘promiscuous’ behaviour.

Fear that this would negatively impact on the gains made towards promoting women’s rights and challenging societal beliefs which justify the continuous violation of women was confirmed in the aftermath of the trial.

Years of raising awareness and promoting human rights are seemingly lost as women’s rights activists are engaging with communities, yet once again, in debates about ‘dress codes’ and ‘promiscuity’ as reasons for rape.

Not only did the trial seem to have divided communities, it has also reinforced existing prejudices about sexual violence and about the risks of HIV infection.

Subsequently, the Zuma trial and judgement, appears to have not only helped perpetuate the status quo and justification for high incidences of sexual violence, rape, and rising HIV infection rates.

While the judgement may have found Zuma ‘not guilty of rape’, the question seems to remain as to his ‘guilt’ of ‘promoting and justifying’ rape and ‘risky sexual behaviour’ in a societal context, in which sexual violence and HIV/Aids have reached pandemic proportions.

And while the experiences in the aftermath of the Zuma trial may have raised many new questions about women’s rights, women’s realities have remained unchanged.

High incidences of sexual violence and abuse; high HIV prevalence rates and the persistent feminisation of the HIV/Aids pandemics; as well as the prevailing disrespect for, and violation of, fundamental human rights and freedoms are but some of the indicators of women’s realities.

These are further exacerbated by the lack of adequate sexual offences legislation, creating a judicial and societal context, which fails to facilitate access to justice for victims/survivors of sexual violence, and deters many victims/survivors of sexual violence from speaking out and claiming their rights.

Subsequently, perceptions such as ‘there is no justice, so why bother reporting a rape’, are likely to be further entrenched. Statistics indicate that only one in nine cases of rape are reported (MRC, 2002). These are unlikely to improve in the current judicial and societal context.

For many activists, the trial is not over yet. For many years to come we will have to respond to the seemingly everlasting impact of a trial, which not only questioned access to justice for victims and survivors of sexual violence, but also re-emphasised detrimental societal perceptions and beliefs about sexual abuse and the risks of HIV infection.

After a year of mourning after the event, it seems to be high time to remember that these are the very same societal perceptions and beliefs that continuously not only limit the impact of HIV/Aids and sexual violence prevention efforts, but also fuel both pandemics.

* Johanna Kehler, AIDS Legal Network (ALN), on behalf of the One In Nine Campaign (

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