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Published: Sunday, 5/14/2006

South Africa's shame

FORMER South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma does not belong any place where he can affect public policy. He may have been acquitted of raping a woman half his age, a longtime family friend, but he did deep damage to his country with his primitive attitude about women and AIDS.

Mr. Zuma never denied having sex with the woman, whom he knew was HIV positive. At the time of the offense, the 31-year accuser, also an advocate for AIDS patients, was a guest in his house. Mr. Zuma contended she made sexual gestures toward him.

He also said he showered afterwards and therefore believed his risk for contracting the AOIDSvirus was minimal. That may be the dumbest thing a public official has ever uttered, especially in South Africa, where more than 5 million of the 44 million citizens live with the virus and disease.

In July he will face corruption charges that led to his removal from office last year.

Nevertheless, Mr. Zuma believes the acquittal frees him to pursue his political ambitions. In fact, he was once viewed as a leading contender for the presidency.

But if he returns to politics, his peers must carefully weigh what it means to their own political careers to if they support him. Many South African politicians are ashamed of his Neanderthal take on women and his appalling ignorance about HIV/AIDS.

There may be a silver lining, though, if the controversy helps end his political career and revives the South African women's rights movement.

Women's groups were not surprised by the verdict. The judge said the evidence just wasn't there, though he criticized Mr. Zuma for what he called "totally unacceptable behavior."

That's especially true in South Africa. If anyone wonders why the virus is so prevalent there, consider the ignorance of a man who still wants to be his nation's leader.



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