May 10, 2006

Zuma acquitted of rape

South Africa's Former Deputy President Jacob Zuma was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend in a case that opened deep rifts in the ruling African National Congress. The verdict saved the man once seen as the country's next president from political oblivion, but analysts said he had been badly wounded by the sensational court case. Zuma's trial has fanned tensions in the ANC, where he remains a widely popular figure and was until recently seen as the frontrunner to succeed President Thabo Mbeki in 2009. Despite his broad appeal, political analysts say this case and a coming prosecution on graft charges will make it hard for Zuma to recover his former prominence. "I think the judicial proceedings have been beyond reproach, but whether this means that Zuma's political future is still intact is still in question," said Ebrahim Fakir, senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies. Furthermore, he still faces trial in July on the corruption charges, which he has denied and described as part of a political plot by his enemies in the ANC to end his presidential hopes.

But Zuma supporters remained undaunted, they have alleged that he was the victim of a political conspiracy to destroy his career and prevent him from succeeding President Mbeki. The left wing of the party has embraced Zuma as their champion, in apparent opposition to Mbeki's centralised and technocratic style of leadership. The long-running battle, despite the party's attempts to paper over the cracks, has been described as the ANC's worst crisis since it won power in 1994. With his acquittal, "the ANC will have to deal with a bullish Zuma camp, feeling vindicated in their argument that they were victims of political intrigue", said political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi. The first test will be the question of reinstating Zuma, who resigned from his party functions over the rape allegation. ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe said the party was waiting to hear from the populist leader as to whether he would take up his duties again. "Things are going to get worse. What you have here is a highly divided leadership; the capacity of the party to manage the Zuma saga is low," said Matshiqi. All eyes are on the ANC's leadership election in 2007, in which supporters of Mbeki and the 'left' will fight out in the party's branches who the next president will be. But with the leadership split, Matshiqi noted, the ANC's "ability to predetermine the election outcome is [also] low". (Sapa/Rts)

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