Rape charges end Zuma's hope to lead South Africa

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Jacob Zuma, the popular deputy president of South Africa's ruling party, was charged with rape yesterday in a case that has ended his hopes of becoming the next president of Africa's political and economic powerhouse.

Mr Zuma, 63, who was fired by Thabo Mbeki as deputy president of the country in June over corruption allegations, stands accused of "unlawfully and intentionally" sexually assaulting a 31-year-old family friend, said to be a well-known Aids activist, at his Johannesburg home in early November.

Mr Zuma, a former anti-apartheid fighter, vehemently denies the charges but said yesterday he was voluntarily withdrawing from his party's leadership structures for the duration of the trial, a move which he said would not affect his title of deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC).

He is reported to have told friends and supporters that he did have sex with the woman, but that it was consensual.

"I wish to state clearly that I am innocent of these charges," Mr Zuma said in a statement after a brief appearance at Johannesburg magistrates' court. "I regard these allegations against me very seriously as I abhor any form of abuse against women."

These latest charges may have dealt a final blow to the political career of the man who until recently was seen as the likely successor to President Mbeki when he completes his third and final term in 2009.

Even after being fired by Mr Mbeki in June, Mr Zuma remained immensely popular among grassroots ANC supporters. His supporters insisted the corruption charges were part of a smear campaign designed to scupper Mr Zuma's chances of becoming South Africa's next leader.

Thousands of his supporters attended overnight vigils at his initial court appearances, burning T-shirts adorned with Mr Mbeki's portrait and accusing the President of having co-ordinated Mr Zuma's downfall. The ANC's ruling coalition partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), also rallied behind Mr Zuma and demanded his reinstatement.

But analysts say the rape charges have now put paid to any further advancement of Mr Zuma's career. Even his hardcore supporters have seemed to be backtracking since the allegations surfaced in local newspapers last month.

Cosatu and the SACP issued muted statements calling for a quick trial but refusing to comment on the merits of the trial.

The ANC Women's League, which has also been supportive of Mr Zuma, said it was its duty to point out: "... irrespective of the nature of a relationship, a 'no' from a woman means 'no'."

South Africa has one of the highest sexual assault records in the world, with a woman raped every 26 seconds.

As well as being the final nail in the coffin for Mr Zuma's chances of succeeding President Mbeki, the rape case has plunged the ANC - still struggling to recover from the shock of earlier corruption charges stemming from the trial of Mr Zuma's former financial adviser, Shabir Shaik - even deeper into turmoil.

Despite Mr Zuma's assertions that he would retain his vice-presidency of the ruling party and despite the ANC's official line maintaining that he should be presumed innocent unless convicted in court, it was widely expected last night that the national executive committee would decide to suspend him from his post.

Mr Zuma was released yesterday on £2,000 bail ahead of his trial on 13 February. A separate trial relating to the corruption charges is set for July 2006.