Zuma loses luster in South Africa

The deputy leader of the governing African National Congress party, Jacob Zuma, once seen as the potential political heir to South Africa's president, appeared in court Tuesday on charges that he raped a family friend after inviting her to his home and offering her a massage.The accusation follows Zuma's removal in June from the post of deputy president in the wake of corruption charges.The populist Zuma was able to rally support in his power base, the ANC Youth League, unions and the South African Communist Party after the corruption charges. However, after the airing of the rape allegations in South African media, support for him has plummeted in recent weeks.

Zuma's allies maintain that the rape charges are part of a conspiracy designed to undermine his chances of becoming president. Nonetheless, some analysts said it would be difficult for Zuma to recover politically from the dual blows of two drawn-out court cases.Zuma strongly denied the rape allegations Tuesday, just as he had the accusations of corruption.

"I wish to state clearly that I am innocent of these charges," he said in a statement. "I regard these allegations against me very seriously, as I abhor any form of abuse against women. Throughout my life, in line with the policies of my organization, the ANC, I have fought against all forms of violence and abuse against women."

Zuma was released on slightly more than $3,000 in bail. He said he would not carry out official functions as deputy party leader while the case continued, but he did not relinquish the post. South African law bars convicts from pursuing public office.

According to the indictment, Zuma, 63, had invited a 31-year-old family friend to visit him at his home Nov. 2. During the evening he invited her to stay overnight and showed her a room where she could sleep, to which she later retired.The indictment charges that Zuma came to her room and offered her a massage, which she refused, then dragged the duvet from her bed and forced her to have sex with him.

South African newspapers have reported that the alleged victim is an AIDS activist and member of a prominent ANC family.The corruption case against Zuma split the ANC, with his supporters rallying angrily at hearings held in Durban in October and November. Several burned a shirt bearing a picture of President Thabo Mbeki, who had decided that Zuma should step down as deputy president of South Africa.

Following the rape charge, however, the ANC Women's League issued a statement Tuesday saying that although Zuma was innocent until proved guilty, it was time for the state and society to support the victim. "Of serious concern is the vulnerability of the victim and the historical relations that both families had," the organization said. "We are saddened by the fact that this incident implicates a leader that people have put confidence and trust in and who has had the responsibility of leading the Moral Regeneration Movement, was convener of the South African National AIDS Council and also deputy president of the ANC."

The Moral Regeneration Movement seeks to promote equity and justice and deplores corruption.

As deputy president, Zuma advocated virginity tests to curb teenage pregnancies and slow the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Ebrahim Fakir, senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies, a political analysis organization, said the charges cast doubt on Zuma's judgment and his ability to lead the country."I think it might be strategic and wise for the ANC to consider the kind of negative perceptions that might accrue to them as a party in government to keep an individual in such a high-profile position," he said.If Zuma is cleared of all charges, he could rebuild his support, Fakir said, reports the AP. I.L.

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