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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 February 2006, 12:34 GMT
Rape trial final test for Zuma
Jacob Zuma faces the Johannesburg High Court on Monday, down but not quite out, writes the BBC News website's Justin Pearce in Johannesburg.

File photograph of Jacob Zuma
A guilty verdict would be the end of Zuma's political career
A rape charge laid against former South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma late last year was widely thought to have delivered a fatal blow to a political career that was already wounded by charges of corruption.

Supporters who had stood by him during the corruption investigation suddenly backtracked, rather than associate themselves with a rape suspect.

In December, the African National Congress in which Mr Zuma had played such a prominent role for so long announced that he would be standing down from official duties pending the outcome of the trial.

It was a tough decision for the party, since Mr Zuma's huge popular support has helped to cement the ANC's hold over South African voters.

As a speaker with the common touch, he could work crowds in a way that President Thabo Mbeki never managed; as a Zulu, he appealed to South Africa's largest ethnic group; as one who spoke the language of the left, he appealed to the poor who felt left behind by South Africa's conservative economic policies since the end of apartheid.

He remains, technically, the party's deputy president, but that is because he can only be removed from that post by the party's biennial congress.


And despite the suspension of Mr Zuma's official duties, the party tacitly acknowledged the pulling power of "JZ" by allowing him to participate in its campaign for municipal elections scheduled for 1 March.

While other ANC allies - notably the South African Communist Party and the trade union federation, Cosatu - dropped their support for Mr Zuma in the light of the rape charges, the ANC Youth League remains his staunchest ally as the rape trial begins.

Jacob Zuma's supporters rally in his defence
Some Zuma supporters are now having second thoughts
"Our members will therefore come out in numbers to pledge support to the ANC Deputy President," a Youth League statement said.

How many people do in fact demonstrate in support of Mr Zuma on Monday will be a crucial test of how far his popular support has survived the rape furore.

At least 1,000 people demonstrated when he appeared in court to hear corruption charges - but that appearance was before the rape allegations appeared, and took place in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal where his support base has always been strongest.

The rape charge will be heard in the Johannesburg High Court, in the city where the alleged offence took place.


Mr Zuma is expected to argue that he had a consensual sexual relationship with the woman who accused him.

The trial will essentially pit his word against that of his accuser - and examine whether she was under political pressure when she laid the charge, and when she later reportedly told some journalists that there was no case to be made.

The corruption trial, due to move to the Durban High Court in July, is likely to involve the lengthy weighing of evidence.

Of course, a guilty verdict in either of the two trials would make it impossible for even Mr Zuma's most ardent supporters to carry on defending him.

But that could be some months away - and up to now, the popular mood has appeared independent of the decisions of the party leadership.

The disbelief that greeted the conviction last June of Mr Zuma's adviser Schabir Shaik demonstrated that for some, political loyalties were stronger than respect for the judiciary.

If Mr Zuma draws a crowd in Johannesburg, his supporters will take it as a victory - while others in the ANC and in the government will be anxious that their biggest political headache in years has not quite been dealt with.

See footage of Mr Zuma

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