Rape Case May Sink South Africa's Ex-Veep

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Jacob Zuma was supposed to be the nice guy of South African politics. While President Thabo Mbeki often comes across as aloof and technocratic, his former deputy and erstwhile heir apparent seems warm and approachable, reveling in his image as a man of the people. Opposition leader Tony Leon, often scathing in his criticism of Mbeki, recently called Zuma a "decent human being who radiates a sense of civility and humanity."

But Zuma's image—and fortunes—have taken a battering this year, culminating on Tuesday with an appearance in court to answer a charge of rape. That's on top of the corruption charges the onetime leader of South Africa's Moral Regeneration Movement faces in a separate trial. But for many in the ruling African National Congress, Zuma's fall from grace is viewed not as a tale of personal failings, but instead as the workings of a conspiracy to blunt the grassroots left-wing challenge for the leadership of which the former Deputy President had been a champion.

Zuma's troubles began in June when the Durban High Court convicted his friend and financial adviser Schabir Shaik on charges of corruption and fraud. Judge Hilary Squires said that Shaik had paid some $180,000 to Zuma in bribes, and had also helped a French arms trading company bribe Zuma to deflect corruption investigations over a $7.5 billion government deal to buy ships, submarines, helicopters, jets and other arms. Squires said that there was "overwhelming" evidence of a corrupt relationship between Shaik and Zuma. Soon after, President Mbeki sacked his deputy, saying that the court's verdict had "raised questions of conduct that would be inconsistent with expectations that attend those who hold public office." Within weeks, Zuma himself had been charged with corruption—charges he says he will fight.

Opinion polls show a majority of South Africans supporting Mbeki's decision to axe Zuma, but it enraged the Deputy President's supporters on the left flank of the ruling party, particularly in its Youth League and among its Communist Party and union allies. They responded with a noisy public campaign to have Zuma reinstated and made the ANC's next presidential candidate when Mbeki's term expires in 2009. Zuma backers alleged their man was the victim of a conspiracy by ANC conservatives, including the president, and their depth of feeling was illustrated in at least one protest when a group of Zuma supporters burned a T-shirt bearing Mbeki's image.

The rape charge may have taken the wind out of their sales. Last month, after South African newspapers began reporting allegations that Zuma had raped a family friend, there was a noticeable falling off in public campaigning on his behalf. The politician has reportedly told friends he had engaged in consensual sex with the woman, a well known HIV-positive AIDS activist, but had never raped her. "I regard these allegations against me very seriously as I abhor any form of abuse against women," Zuma said in a statement after he was charged with rape.

Conspiracy theories aside, Zuma's downfall certainly marks a victory for the more centrist leadership of the ANC. A savage debate over the decision to back Zuma is already roiling South Africa's union movement and Communist Party. "They are in internal turmoil because they backed the wrong person," says William Gumede, author of the best selling book Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. "And now they're out of the succession loop and out of the policy loop." With Zuma gone and the left in disarray, President Mbeki will find it easier to push through reforms aimed at nudging economic growth above 6%—in particular, a relaxing of labor laws that employers complain make hiring and firing people too expensive. Zuma's demise also clears the way for Mbeki protégé Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, appointed by Mbeki to replace Zuma, to sell herself as the new president-in-waiting. "It's an opportunity for her to show South Africans she's a good bet," says Gumede. "And she's moving on that quickly."