I was thankful when South Africans, after years of apartheid, earned the right to elect their president. And their first choice, Nelson Mandela, proved to be the right choice-- his idea for a 'truth and reconciliation commission' almost certainly averted waves of reprisal killings and other continuing violence to settle scores between families, tribes and individuals stemming from the country's decades long civil war.
Unfortunately, since Mandela left office, South Africans have elected a series of incompetents, buffoons and corrupt leaders to follow him. But none of them may leave as bad a taste as the man who wants to become South Africa's next President, Jacob Zuma. That's right, the same Jacob Zuma who was acquitted of rape yesterday on the basis that his victim, an HIV-positive family friend, was 'inappropriately dressed.'
Then to top it off, Zuma explained that he showered after having sex with the woman so he would not get AIDS, and downplayed having sex without a condom. Of course, AIDS has been running rampant in South Africa for several years, especially after the harm done by former President Thabo Mbeke who refused to even acknowlege the disease and even refused free AIDS drugs offered to his country by the west, as if denying the existence of AIDS would make it disappear. In fact, Zuma was the head of the AIDS commission under Mbeke, and obviously doesn't take it much more seriously.
Besides not taking AIDS seriously, South Africa and Zuma also have a problem taking something else seriously-- violence against women.
South Africa is battling one of the world's highest rates of rape due to deep-seated sexism and rampant violence, and the biggest HIV caseload, with some 5 million people infected.
In a ruling activists said reinforced dangerous stereotypes about AIDS and women, the judge said an "inappropriately dressed" complainant flirted with Zuma before agreeing to sleep with him, then later fabricated a rape story.
"This is huge setback for women's rights," said Dawn Cavanagh, advocacy coordinator for activist group Gender AIDS Forum. "The judge is feeding into stereotypes about women."
The plaintiff's sexual history was made the focal point of the case, as well as her dress-- rather than Zuma or what his actions were. Apalling? yes. Disgusting? yes. Likely to change anytime soon? probably not.
What is very frightening is the very real prospect that Jacob Zuma might become the next President of South Africa. He has a lot of support. And some of his supporters were making themselves heard at the trial:
They said Zuma had not done enough to quell sexism among his supporters, who during the trial burned pictures of the complainant outside the court and yelled "burn the bitch."
"Just look at this handsome man," said 38-year-old Eugenia Yantcho, brandishing a photograph of Zuma after the verdict on Monday. "How could you say he would rape anyone?"
Yeah, that's it. If he's handsome, he couldn't be a rapist? What kind of logic is that? Heck, Ted Bundy, a handsome guy who looked sharp in a suit while defending himself on TV, got a number of marriage proposals in prison while he was waiting to be executed after murdering an estimated 38 women. And just last year, there were women who wanted to marry Scott Peterson. I don't know which is worse-- that kind of twisted logic, or those few really sick women who follow it.
What is worse, his successor as Deputy President and very likely Presidential rival, is a woman. I will give the South Africans credit for one thing though. In America, when people are sexist, they usually hide it behind some sort of 'code.' In South Africa, they wear it like a badge:
Several of Zuma's deeply conservative supporters -- many wearing the traditional dress of his Zulu tribe -- held placards reading "No woman for president," a reference to Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka, the woman who replaced Zuma as deputy president.
"We don't want a woman president. God didn't create women for that," said 19-year-old Moscow Mashegoane. "We want Zuma."
Now, I don't know anything at all about Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka, but the fact that she is 1) a woman in a country where a strong female role model would do a world of good, and 2) is running against Zuma, makes me hope that she wins.