JOHN YDSTIE, host:
A South African judge today acquitted former Deputy President Jacob Zuma in a case that has revealed rifts in the country's ruling African National Congress. Zuma was accused of raping a 31-year-old woman. He admits having sex with the woman, who's a family friend, but says it was consensual. And Zuma says the rape charges are part of a political plot to prevent him from succeeding Thabo Mbeki as president in 2009. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Johannesburg covering the trial. Jason, what was the scene like outside the courthouse when it was announced that Zuma had been acquitted?
JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:
Even before the judge had finally said that he was acquitting Jacob Zuma, supporters of Mr. Zuma flooded into the streets, pushed through police barricades, and started singing and dancing in the streets. It was quite a scene -- thousands of Zuma supporters, and it really shows how popular he still is, despite this rape trial and an upcoming corruption trial that's going to get started in July.
YDSTIE: Was the verdict a surprise?
BEAUBIEN: In many ways, the verdict wasn't surprising. Zuma and the woman had completely different stories about what occurred. He said that it was consensual sex that occurred in his master bedroom at his house. She said that she was raped in the guest bedroom, even though there were many other people in the house at the time. The judge finally found that her story wasn't credible, but it really came down to a he-said/she-said type of case and, in that case, the judge ruled in favor of Mr. Zuma.
YDSTIE: Mm hmm. This two-month-long trial has attracted a lot of attention, partly because the woman is HIV positive and an AIDS activist.
BEAUBIEN: Yes, HIV has been a very big issue in this trial, mainly because both parties say that a condom wasn't used, whether it was consensual sex or whether it was rape. And Jacob Zuma was the former head of the National AIDS Council in South Africa while he was Deputy President.
He said in court, testified that he didn't believe that he had much of a chance of catching HIV from sex with a woman. This is despite the fact that he knew that this woman was HIV positive. And then he went on to testify that he took a shower immediately afterwards to reduce the risk of contracting the virus. These statements really riled up anti-AIDS activists, who say that it illustrates the ignorance in the top elite in the South African government towards this issue, which is affecting millions of South Africans.
YDSTIE: Zuma was, at one point at least, one of the most powerful politicians in South Africa, and in line to be the next president. So the political implications of this trial have been very significant, and I guess, especially now, the question of whether Zuma can recover.
BEAUBIEN: Zuma was fired as Deputy President because of corruption charges and, when that occurred Zuma went on the campaign trail, gathered amazing support amongst both people in his home base, but also across the country, particularly working class, liberals, and he looked like he was going to bounce back politically. But then he was hit with this rape charge, a whole other trial.
At this point I think that this trial has done significant damage to him, because if nothing else, it showed terrible indiscretion in terms of exposing himself to HIV. He's married with several wives and then here he is, sleeping with the daughter of the friend of the family. So Zuma didn't come out of this looking good. I think that, overall, this has hurt him and it has really opened up the ANC to a debate over who it is that's going to succeed Thabo Mbeki in 2009.
YDSTIE: Jason, thanks very much. NPR's Jason Beaubien in Johannesburg.
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