||To say that the outcome of the Jacob Zuma trial is a setback for women’s rights, is to state the obvious. But it need not be viewed as a defeat.
The outcome of the trial was the culmination of a horrifying process of a thousand steps back for women in South Africa. The courtroom revelations were ugly, as well as shockingly misinformed and irresponsible, and revealed officialdom’s basic attitude to women: patriarchal. I do not refer to the actual guilty verdict handed down by Judge Willem van der Merwe. The guilty verdict is ultimately predictable, particularly so in a country and context where rape convictions are notoriously difficult to secure. It is predictable more so because we live in an overall social environment where relationships between men and women are mostly predicated on an ideology of male dominance and authority and hence grotesquely skewed toward the likelihood of deep disrespect at one end of the continuum and violence and aggression at the other. Respect as the fundamental basis for human interaction between men and women, just isn’t a common reality.
The course of the Jacob Zuma trial exposed some of the worst manifestations of this profound disrespect for women. Patriarchal values ruled the day as the complainant’s character and sexuality was laid bare, even interrogating her sexual past as a minor and then pronouncing her ‘mentally ill’. Zuma’s accuser was put through the metaphorical wringer, without even the barest concessions toward protecting the dignity and personal privacy to which she was entitled. Aggressive crowds of supporters outside the court harassed, humiliated and abused her, and even went as far as to burn underwear as gestures of disgust. The prevailing locker-room type atmosphere of sniggers and sneers, particularly with regard to the complainant’s sexuality and body, was and is an affront to women everywhere.
Predictably she fled. Somehow the accuser had become the accused. Whatever her motives, and this is no judgement on the rightness or wrongfulness of it, her decision to revert to the recourse of the law was a courageous choice to confront a powerful man in a powerful position. Of course Jacob Zuma is not just any powerful man. A senior leadership figure of some popularity and charisma, he is also a formidable political creature whose instincts for survival have been tested and proved time and time again. Moreover, he was known to her as a ‘family friend’, as it has been said. Certainly the decision to take him to court, would not have been an easy one. Yet the profoundity of that choice and its immense courage has never been recognized, particularly so given that rape complainants are generally not known for receiving sensitive treatment from the police, courts and medical profession.
The ramifications of this trial are sobering. In fact it could take your breath away in the reverberations that this trial will have on generations of women who will think twice before reporting their perpetrators, compounding the trauma of rape, and on men who will take to heart the fallacies and stereotypes regarding unprotected sex, HIV/AIDS and who will struggle against the old racist myth of unbridled African masculinity.
The whole issue of morality-as stiff and conservative as that sounds-has yet to be examined. Even regardless of the actual rape charge, in all its charged contestations and disputes, there is a certain level of moral conduct implied by a married HIV/AIDS activist having unprotected sex with a known HIV positive family friend several generations younger than himself, whom he knew since she was five years old, and with whom he had a so called ‘father-daughter relationship’. Despite this supposed relationship, Zuma did not utter a single word of restraint or reproof with which to reign in his supporters when they were abusing and harassing his so called ‘daughter’. No mention was made of the issue of the risks posed by his unsafe sexual behaviour to his own wives, given that women are often infected with the HIV virus by husbands, boyfriends and partners.
It is easy to imagine that the various messages which have been sent out into the public domain will take on a life of their own, particularly so where access to education and sound medical knowledge is lacking, and will find horrible new articulations in terms of attitudes to women, HIV/AIDS, fidelity and the accessibility of ‘culture’ as a convenient explanation for irresponsible and dangerous sexual behaviours.
Many of us felt hugely defeated and discouraged as the law pronounced its verdict on the country’s most high profile rape case. But a thousand steps back need not exclude as many steps forward. There is a concomitant groundswell of support for the complainant, both men and women, which bears testimony to the voices of reason and enlightenment in our society. It also bears heartening testimony to the incredible strength of gender activism in South Africa. This is a powerful base on which to build a movement which counteracts and opposes the toxic effect of the Zuma trial. And if this trial teaches us anything at all, it must surely be that we need education, education, education. We’re now more than ever attuned to the fact that the sources of miseducation and misinformation are rampant in our society, even in our highest levels, and this must urgently begin a debate about how we deal with this. This needs to be a critical starting point with which to begin examining our legal and social support mechanisms for rape, which includes strengthening the advent of sexual offences facilities. It may well be the beginnings of phenomenal change. Or a slow and clumsy stumble toward a better understanding of gender based issues and each other. Either way, it will push us toward a more positive scenario than we have now.