April 05, 2006

The Zuma Trial: Insight into HIV

The American media has understandably been closely following the court proceedings of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person indicted in the September 11th attacks. Southern Africa, however, has been riveted by another legal case lately: the trial of Jacob Zuma, former South African Deputy President. The 62 year old politician, once regarded as a future Presidential candidate for the African National Congress, is accused of raping a 31 year old AIDS activist.

As with anything to do with AIDS and politics in South Africa, there is no shortage of weirdness. Before the trial started, Zuma’s followers already deemed the rape accusation a political conspiracy, a vile attempt to discredit a leader described as a ‘man of the people’ and ‘Mr. Nice Guy.’ Supporters of Zuma have jeered and heckled his female accuser every time she has arrived at Johannesburg High Court. During the time leading up to the trial, the otherwise happily married Mr. Zuma has vigorously denied the rape charge, taking the moral high road by claiming that he and the woman in question merely had consensual sex. Or rather: knowingly had consensual sex with an HIV positive woman. Or rather: knowingly had consensual sex with an HIV positive woman without a condom.

Yesterday saw Zuma take the stand to be questioned by the state prosecutor. The prosecutor asked a simple question independent of the rape charge. Why, the prosecutor asked, would the previous head of the South African AIDS Council and the Moral Regeneration Movement have unprotected sex with a woman he knew to have HIV? His answer was noteworthy: the risk of acquiring HIV through unprotected sex with a woman, he stated, is small for a healthy man. “I had the knowledge that …chances were very slim that you could get the disease.” As for his own HIV status, Zuma stated that he knew he was HIV negative, and besides, he ‘had a way of having sex that protected him from infection.’ Not wanting to give the wrong impression at this point, Mr. Zuma told the court that he regularly uses condoms, a piece of information that may be reassuring both to the nation and to his four wives.

Mr. Zuma’s statement offers a peek into the understanding of HIV/AIDS among the highest political circles in the country with the most HIV positive persons in the world. As is well-known, South Africa has a President with a soft spot for rogue scientists who deny that HIV causes AIDS, and a Health Minister who is convinced that garlic and local herbs are just as good at controlling clinical AIDS as antiretroviral drugs. Now South Africa has a political leader with a bold new vision of HIV prevention: just be a healthy guy, and do it in a special way, and you’ll be fine. The trial is ongoing, so stay tuned for lurid revelations and creative approaches to HIV/AIDS.
- Stuart Rennie

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