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South African Political Figure’s Trial Brings HIV/AIDS and Violence Against Women to the Fore

Former South African Deputy President and presidential hopeful Jacob Zuma is on trial in the Johannesburg High Court for allegedly raping an HIV-positive AIDS activist and long-time family friend. Zuma’s testimony, widely reported in the media, has been riddled with misinformation about HIV/AIDS and the nature of sexual assault. These statements and the resulting media coverage have generated conflicting protests in Johannesburg but have also provided an opportunity for public discussion of HIV prevention, gender equity, and the complicated intersection of the two.

Zuma has denied raping “Khwezi,” a nickname used by supporters for the alleged rape victim who has not been named outside court. While her consent is in dispute, he has affirmed that he did not use a condom. Zuma, former head of the National AIDS Council, said that according to his understanding, it was difficult for a man to contract HIV through sex with a woman. He also testified that he showered to minimize the risk of contracting HIV after engaging in unprotected sex with the HIV-positive woman.1

In South Africa, more than 5 million people are HIV-positive, the highest number in the world.2 Although heterosexual sexual intercourse is the primary mode HIV transmission, condom use is notoriously low. While it is true that female-to-male HIV transmission is less common than male-to-female transmission, AIDS educators fear that Zuma’s explanation could be interpreted as meaning men are not at risk from heterosexual intercourse.3

Zuma has also testified that Khwezi led him to believe she wanted sex by lamenting she had no boyfriend and wearing a skirt when she visited his house.4 He said that he was prepared to marry the woman who accused him of rape, and that her aunts were discussing the possibility of marriage and the issue of lobola, a Zulu tradition of husbands giving animals or money to his bride’s family, also known as bride price. “Yes, if we had reached an agreement with that, I would have had my cows ready,” Zuma told the court.

Advocates and educators argue that these types of beliefs—that women’s outfits can communicate their consent to sex, that marrying a woman negates sexually assaulting her, and that women can be bought like property—make women more vulnerable to both violence and HIV infection. In South Africa, women already make up over half of infected individuals and their numbers continue to rise. Sue Goldstein of Soul City, an HIV education and information group, says Zuma’s statements in court “bring the issues to the fore, but also show what we’re battling against.” She says that while many South Africans remain in denial about AIDS, it is equally worrying that people believe that men “can’t control their sexuality, but believe that as men they are less at risk.”5

Like many trials for rape, the Zuma trial essentially amounts to her word against his. Because Zuma is a high-profile, political figure, however, the case is politically loaded, and Zuma and his supporters have claimed that the accusation is part of a political plot against him.6 Supporters have at times stood outside the court and jeered as Khwezi has arrived at the courthouse, and groups have burned her picture.7 The woman is being guarded by a witness protection program and has been in hiding for the three months since pressing charges.8

In response to the backlash against Khwezi, concerned individuals have organized the One in Nine Campaign, so-titled to publicize that only one of every nine women who are raped report it. As part of this campaign, on Friday, March 24, people protested in five South African cities in a Day of Solidarity. The protestors called for the justice system to protect women who have been raped and treat survivors of rape and gender violence with respect and to increase access to information, services, and care.9

In another effort, 54 women from 21 African countries, who were meeting in Johannesburg to discuss women’s rights and HIV/AIDS, have issued a letter in support of Khwezi. Calling violence against women and HIV/AIDS twin epidemics, they announce their solidarity with Khwezi as she has reported sexual assault, respected the mechanisms to report and resolve crimes, courageously confronted a powerful man in a powerful position, and been vilified by a form of reporting that is biased and blatantly sexist. They conclude:

South Africa prides itself as a democracy whose Constitution promotes and protects women’s human rights and freedoms from sexual violations. It prides itself on promoting and protecting the rights of women and people living with HIV and AIDS. South Africa claims to have a sophisticated judiciary that is free of political and other powerful influence. We want these bold claims to hold true.10

To learn more about the One in Nine Campaign, please visit:

For a timeline of the Zuma trial, please visit:

To read more about HIV/AIDS and other sexual health issues in South Africa , please visit: http://www.siecus.local/inter/pepfar/South_Africa.pdf



  1. Wendy Jasson da Costa, “AIDS Groups Back the Press after Manto Claim,” the Star , 13 April 2006 , accessed 20 April 2006 , <>.
  2. “S. Africa ‘s Zuma Denies Aids Risk,” BBC, 4 April 2006, accessed 20 April 2006, <>.
  3. Justin Pearce, “Zuma testimony sparks HIV fear,” BBC, 4 April 2006, accessed 20 April 2006, < >.
  4. Associated Press, “South African rape trial raises AIDS alarm bells,” MSNBC, 6 April 2006 , accessed 20 April 2006, <>.
  5. Pearce.
  6. “Rape trial final test for Zuma,” BBC, 12 February 2006 , accessed 20 April 2006 , <>.
  7. “Timeline of Zuma trial,”, 20 Mar 2006, accessed 20 April 2006, <>.
  8. “Zuma lawyers seek rape trial end,” BBC, 27 March 2006, accessed 20 April 2006, <>.
  9. “National protest to support rape victims,” South Africa Independent Media Center, 24 March 2006, accessed 20 April 2006 , <>.
  10. The Jacob Zuma Rape Case: A letter to Khwezi, 13 April 2006, accessed 20 April 2006, <`>.