Jacob Zuma, South Africa's former deputy president, has been acquitted of rape after a politically charged case that jeopardised his career and split the ruling African National Congress.
Thousands of his supporters erupted into a jubilant frenzy outside the Johannesburg High Court yesterday after a judge found him not guilty of raping the 31-year-old HIV-positive woman. But he did not emerge unscathed. Judge Willem van der Merwe chided the popular politician for engaging in "totally unacceptable" behaviour by having unprotected sex with a woman who was a family friend, half his age, not his regular partner, and especially as he knew that she was HIV-positive.
The judgment has saved Mr Zuma's political career, at least for now, although he has been badly wounded by the trial, which is likely to deepen the turmoil in the ANC over who succeeds President Thabo Mbeki when his second and final term ends in 2009.
Mr Zuma, who was dismissed by Mr Mbeki last year after another judge implicated him in a corruption scandal, faces a separate corruption trial in July.
Mr Zuma had denied raping the woman, who cannot be named under South African law, but admitted that he had had "consensual sex" with her at his home in a Johannesburg suburb on 12 November last year. Judge van der Merwe ruled that the state had failed to prove rape beyond reasonable doubt. "I find that consensual sex took place between the complainant and the accused," the judge said.
The judge also criticised the complainant, saying she had not been a credible witness and citing defence witnesses who said she had previously brought false rape charges against them.
"It would be foolish for any man with a police guard at hand and his daughter not far away to surprise a sleeping woman and to start raping her without knowing whether she would shout the roof off," the judge said.
He also said "he would not even comment" on Mr Zuma's evidence that he had a shower after the intercourse to lessen his chances of contracting Aids.
That evidence, given by Mr Zuma during his cross-examination, made him a figure of fun, with newspaper cartoonists using it to lampoon him and the government's often lacklustre approach to Aids. It also set off a debate about why rates of sexual assault and Aids are so high in South Africa, which has the highest Aids infection rate in the world, with up to 6 million cases.
Mr Zuma and his numerous supporters have maintained that both the rape and corruption cases are part of a political conspiracy led by Mr Mbeki, a Xhosa, to sideline Mr Zuma, a Zulu, from becoming president. There is apparently growing irritation by Zulus, who constitute the largest ethnic group, with what they see as a Xhosa plan to exclude other tribes from the top job. Nelson Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president in 1994, is a Xhosa, like Mr Mbeki.
The ANC now also faces a dilemma about what to do with Mr Zuma. After the rape charges were laid, he was asked to excuse himself from official duties, but retained his post. Demands for him to be reinstated could now intensify.
During apartheid, Mr Zuma was imprisoned on Robben Island and then later from exile headed the military wing of the African National Congress. He rose to the upper echelon of the governing party despite being denied by apartheid the chance of a higher education. He was seen as a man of the people, one who fought for the common man and who had the support of the ANC Youth League, and the South African Congress of Trade Unions and South African Communist Party - influential members of the governing alliance.
After leaving court, Mr Zuma criticised the press coverage of the affair, hinting that he believed some of it was directed by people involved in a conspiracy against him. "Like it or not, Zuma will be the next president," Ronnie Mncina, one of the thousands of supporters outside court, said.
Damaging views in a country ravaged by Aids
By Elizabeth Davies
When Jacob Zuma stood in the dock during the most high-profile court case in recent South African history and testified that he had not used a condom while having "consensual sex" with an HIV-positive woman, his admission hit a raw nerve in a country with the highest Aids infection rate in the world.
In particular, Mr Zuma's claim that he had taken a shower afterwards in an effort to minimise his chances of infection provoked outrage among those fighting to contain the spread of the virus. Even his closest political allies began to question his judgement and, by implication, his fitness to lead the country.
Mr Zuma, who while deputy president was head of South Africa's National Aids Council, also told the court he believed a healthy man was unlikely to catch HIV from a woman. Analysts say the views aired in the rape trial have damaged his reputation.
South Africa has more people - 5 million out of its 45 million citizens - with HIV than any other country, and infection levels are soaring. A study by the Department of Health estimated that almost 30 per cent of pregnant women in South Africa were living with HIV.
But the government has often been accused of not taking Aids seriously. President Thabo Mbeki has been accused of failing to admit the true extent of the Aids problem. A lack of education campaigns, almost total absence of sex education in schools and an underfunded and poorly managed public health system have all been cited as reasons why the virus is spreading so rapidly.
Sue Goldstein of Soul City, an HIV information group, told the BBC that Mr Zuma's statements in court "bring the issues to the fore, but also show what we're battling against". She pointed to "lack of leadership" as one of the problems hindering the struggle against HIV transmission in South Africa, adding it "boggles the mind" that such a prominent player on the political stage could act in the manner that he admitted to in court.Reuse content