South Africa’s risky proposition

The Jacob Zuma trial in South Africa could determine that country’s future. Zuma is the charismatic, populist former deputy president of South Africa. His popularity made him the favorite to succeed Thabo Mbeki. But last year he was fired over corruption allegations. Then, he was charged with rape. Zuma claims that these allegations are all ...

607008_zuma6.jpg
607008_zuma6.jpg

The Jacob Zuma trial in South Africa could determine that country’s future. Zuma is the charismatic, populist former deputy president of South Africa. His popularity made him the favorite to succeed Thabo Mbeki. But last year he was fired over corruption allegations. Then, he was charged with rape. Zuma claims that these allegations are all part of a plot to discredit him and tried to turn the trials into a demonstration of his political strength. A pro-Zuma anthem instantly became a chart hit and large crowds gathered at the court to support him. If Zuma were to come through this and win the presidency in 2009 it is predicted that he would lead the country down a far more left-wing and nationalist path.

However, as more details emerge in this rape case his support is beginning to slip away. The case also reveals the scary levels of ignorance and denial about AIDS which exist even within the highest echelons of South African society. Zuma admits that he had unprotected sex with a woman he knew to be HIV positive; but claims that the woman initiated the whole thing. This strikes me—and others—as bizarrely risky, almost suicidal behavior for an HIV negative man. Zuma, though, claims “the risk I was taking was not a great risk.” And this from the man who used to head his country's National AIDS Council!

The Jacob Zuma trial in South Africa could determine that country’s future. Zuma is the charismatic, populist former deputy president of South Africa. His popularity made him the favorite to succeed Thabo Mbeki. But last year he was fired over corruption allegations. Then, he was charged with rape. Zuma claims that these allegations are all part of a plot to discredit him and tried to turn the trials into a demonstration of his political strength. A pro-Zuma anthem instantly became a chart hit and large crowds gathered at the court to support him. If Zuma were to come through this and win the presidency in 2009 it is predicted that he would lead the country down a far more left-wing and nationalist path.

However, as more details emerge in this rape case his support is beginning to slip away. The case also reveals the scary levels of ignorance and denial about AIDS which exist even within the highest echelons of South African society. Zuma admits that he had unprotected sex with a woman he knew to be HIV positive; but claims that the woman initiated the whole thing. This strikes me—and others—as bizarrely risky, almost suicidal behavior for an HIV negative man. Zuma, though, claims “the risk I was taking was not a great risk.” And this from the man who used to head his country’s National AIDS Council!

More than one in five adult South Africans has HIV/AIDS. The country is in dire need of leadership on the issue. But combine Zuma’s blasé attitude in this case with Mbeki’s comment that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and that he knows no one who has died from AIDS and you begin to despair that South Africa’s political leaders will ever come to grips with the disease that is ravaging their nation. 

James Forsyth is assistant editor at Foreign Policy.

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