Trial & Error

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The recent trail on a rape charge of a potential candidate for the presidency in a Johannesburg court has opened up a number of darker issues in South African politics - from tribalism to HIV/AIDS.

Former Deputy President Jacob Zuma, who is on trial for allegedly raping an HIV-positive woman, was also a one-time head of the national AIDS awareness council, adding fuel to the fire of claims that the government has not taken the HIV/AIDS epidemic seriously.

According to most studies, South Africa has one of the highest levels of HIV infection of any country in the world, with a Medical Research Council study in 2004 warning that roughly "almost 40% mortality due to HIV/AIDS in 2000 [is] expected to increase to 75% by 2010".

The virus has spread indiscriminately across social and economic groups. Recently, a study by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) looking at local government employees concluded that as many as 40,000 out of 300,000 teachers were infected with HIV and were in need of treatment with anti-retroviral drugs (ARDs).

The virus will also likely have some grim results if not managed properly. Speaking to OBG last week, Professor Andre Roux of the Institute of Futures Research (IFR) in Cape Town said that his think-tank expected the number of deaths from AIDS to be around 40,000 a month in five years time, shaving around 0.5% of South Africa's GDP growth.

These figures confirm current estimates from HIV/AIDS awareness campaign Love Life, which told OBG in early April that deaths were currently running at around 1000 a day.

Thus Zuma's remarks that there had not been "any great risk" of him contracting the virus during unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman have been greeted with outrage by HIV/AIDS campaigners.

Yet Zuma maintains his innocence and has the support of a large number of people and organisations.

Should he be acquitted, he may also become a front-runner in the race to become South Africa's third president since the transition to full democracy.

His trail is also being seen by many as a case of the worrying return of tribal politics.

As a member of the ruling ANC, Zuma has his support base in his native Kwan-Zulu Natal. Many Zulus believe that Zuma's woes are part of an elaborate plot by the Xhosa-dominated ANC to oust a Zulu contender for the presidency.

The animosity between the two tribes is well documented. The Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelininti, and his chief minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, were calling for the Zulu peoples to succeed from South Africa as recently as 1994, famously stating that while they tolerated British rule and Apartheid, they would never submit the "Sons of Heaven" (the Zulus) to Xhosa rule.

The Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) only took part in South Africa's first fully democratic elections thanks to last-minute negotiations. The IFP party logo was printed on stickers and added to the ballot papers a week before the poll.

Since then, the influence of the IFP has waned, but the tribe's growing affinity with the ANC was in large part thanks to Zuma's key role within the party. In a country where tribal loyalties remain strong, the natural Zulu choice for the next presidency was Zuma.

On the other hand, the ANC has always maintained that the former National Party (NP), under President FW De Klerk, tried to exaggerate the extent to which the ANC was a Xhosa-dominated party. The ANC was traditionally against any tribal or ethnic basis for its movement, stressing a shared South African identity. Some now worry if this is breaking down.

However, most analysts and political insiders believe that if South African unity survived the Buthelezi challenge, it can certainly survive this. Zuma is an ANC man through and through, and is unlikely to want to split the party.

He has also never spoken out against the free market reforms of the current president, Thabo Mbeki, and he has spoken eloquently of the need to maintain both market and currency stability.

Most commentators on South African politics see Zuma's alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) as largely a marriage of convenience.

It is widely held that COSATU and the SACP do not exactly have a wealth of candidates, and Zuma has become their man almost by default. Zuma has also been known to back calls for land redistribution that the SACP has also been pushing for.

Zuma was traditionally a staunch Mbeki ally. He was also an exile like Mbeki, spending many years abroad during the apartheid era.

Yet while a Zuma presidency would most likely be more of the same, it would, however, take a PR campaign of epic proportions to repair South Africa's international reputation should he indeed be elected. The country's governmental profile internationally in tackling HIV/AIDS has long been a poor one, with the damaging revelations of the trial doing little to help.

A recent spat over the government's failure to invite representatives from one of the country's leading AIDS campaigns, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), to the forthcoming global AIDS summit in New York is another case in point. The government claimed TAC was not invited as it had used such platforms before to attack the authorities in Pretoria. However, the government has since backed off - inviting TAC's chief, if not the organisation itself - but tackling the epidemic, many argue, may require a more substantial shift in attitude of some currently in authority in the capital.

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