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Last Updated: Monday, 15 May 2006, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Zuma embarks on comeback trail
By Justin Pearce
BBC News, Johannesburg

Jacob Zuma has taken the first step on the road to political rehabilitation, with the national executive of the ANC voting to reinstate him in his party duties following his acquittal on rape charges.

South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma
Zuma's comments on HIV have shocked Aids activists

It will admittedly be a long and difficult road, but the former South African deputy president is already looking stronger than he was only a week ago.

It will have been a difficult decision for the ANC, though in some ways it was an inevitable one.

A few years ago when he was still deputy leader of the party and the country, Mr Zuma's career path looked simple.

He would accede to the ANC leadership at the party's national conference in 2007, which would make him the natural choice as presidential candidate when President Thabo Mbeki stood down at the 2009 general election.

When Mr Zuma was charged with corruption last year, he was sacked as deputy president of the country, but retained his functions as the party's deputy leader.

It was only the rape charge, laid in November, that provoked action from a party anxious to be seen to be taking a strong line against sexual violence.

So, even though the corruption case has not yet come to trial, the rape acquittal negates the reason for Mr Zuma's suspension from his duties.

His supporters in the ANC would have been angry indeed had the party decided not to bring him back into the fold.

Reputation

Despite the acquittal, some figures within the party were still troubled by some of the details that emerged during Mr Zuma's testimony in the trial.

Zuma supporter during a protest outside the High Court in Johannesburg on 2 May 2005
Mr Zuma's supporters are in bullish mood
Of most concern were Mr Zuma's admission that he had had sex with a woman who was the daughter of a close friend, and that he had not used a condom in the encounter despite knowing that the woman was HIV positive.

But while such revelations were widely condemned by gender activists and Aids educators, they have had less of an impact on public opinion than political analysts were predicting just a week ago.

Mr Zuma certainly made an effort to rehabilitate his reputation among those who may have had doubts, while still not neglecting his vocal following on the street.

Addressing the crowds in central Johannesburg after the acquittal, he raged against the media and his political enemies as he spoke, apparently off the cuff, in Zulu - the next day his demeanour was far more statesmanlike as he addressed a press conference, broadcast live to the nation, in English.

Apology

Without prompting, he apologised to the nation for having had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman.

Anti-rape campaigners
Women's rights groups have condemned him
Apologies are a rare thing in South African politics - for example, none of Mr Zuma's former colleagues in the cabinet has ever apologised for the government's widely acknowledged failings on HIV/Aids.

Not everyone will have been convinced by Mr Zuma's show of contrition, but it went some way towards shaking off the macho, sleazy and irresponsible image which had clung to him during the trial.

He let his guard down only through his visible irritation when a young woman journalist questioned him on his controversial admission that he had taken a shower after sex as an "additional measure" against HIV transmission.

And when quizzed by the media about his supporters' claims that he is the victim of a conspiracy, Mr Zuma was evasive, naming only former chief prosecutor Bulelani Ngcuka as an enemy.

The ANC explicitly rejected this accusation at the same time as announcing Mr Zuma's resumption of his duties.

So South Africa's ruling party is left in the same awkward position it has been in for a year - it has a deputy leader with a significant group of bullish supporters, but who is still facing a further criminal trial and who is seen as a liability by leading figures in the party, as well as by the media and by political commentators.

The corruption trial is scheduled to begin in July - until a verdict in that trial brings some finality to Mr Zuma's future prospects, the ANC's headaches will not go away.




VOTE RESULTS
Can Jacob Zuma resurrect his political career?
Yes
 33.48% 
No
 66.52% 
12951 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
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