Crowds cheer Zuma at Johannesburg rape trial

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Thousands of cheering supporters of the sacked South African vice-president Jacob Zuma denounced his rape trial as a "political witch-hunt" as they jammed central Johannesburg at the start of the case yesterday.

The trial, which could ruin the political career of one of South Africa's most popular politicians, was delayed until today after the judge hearing the case withdrew when defence lawyers challenged his impartiality. Judge Bernard Ngoepe said he was standing aside to protect the credibility of the judiciary.

Mr Zuma, 63, is charged with raping a 31-year-old HIV-positive Aids activist and family relative at his house in an upmarket suburb of Johannesburg last November. The charge sheet accuses him of offering the woman a massage and when she declined "he proceeded to have sexual intercourse with her without her consent". Mr Zuma, who denies the charge, faces life imprisonment if convicted.

Before the rape charge and a separate one related to corruption in a multibillion-dollar arms deal which comes to trial in May, Mr Zuma had appeared almost certain to succeed President Thabo Mbeki in 2009. Mr Mbeki fired Mr Zuma as deputy president after a Durban High Court judge ruled that he had maintained a "generally corrupt relationship" with his convicted financial adviser, a businessman called Schabir Shaik. Mr Zuma was charged with corruption after that judgment, and faces a separate corruption trial in May.

A hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, Mr Zuma, who headed the ANC intelligence department in exile, looked tense yesterday as he entered the court which was packed with journalists, family and friends. Outside the courthouse about 3,000 supporters chanted liberation war songs and carried placards denouncing the prosecution. They outnumbered by far a dozen or so women's rights activists who gathered to lend support to the former vice-president's unnamed accuser who hid her face in a scarf as police escorted her into court. "We are sending out a strong message of support and solidarity to survivors of rape and violence," said Carrie Shelver, spokeswoman for People Opposing Woman Abuse. She gestured at the Zuma supporters. "This sounds like a party," she added: "Rape is not a party."

The court adjourned until today, when the new judge will hear a defence request for a two-week postponement. Prosecutors oppose the motion, arguing it will only prolong the suffering of the alleged victim.

At the end of proceedings, the atmosphere outside the court premises resembled more a celebratory political rally than a court appearance of an embattled politician. Mr Zuma was helped on to a makeshift podium to address and thank the demonstrators for their support. He sang one of his favourite anti-apartheid songs, "Bring Me My Machinegun". Amid continuous and deafening chants of "Zuma, Zuma, Zuma" from the crowd, he said he was happy that the judge had removed himself from the proceedings.

Supporters believe there is a conspiracy by former president Nelson Mandela and Mr Mbeki's Xhosa tribe to stop Mr Zuma, a Zulu, from becoming president. "The Xhosas want to monopolise power, hence these politically motivated charges," said Nonlanhla Buthelezi, a Zuma supporter.