A South African judge yesterday acquitted former deputy president Jacob Zuma of raping an HIV-positive family friend, keeping alive the political hopes of a man once seen as the country's next president.
"I find that consensual sex took place between the complainant and the accused," Judge Willem van der Merwe told a packed Johannesburg High Court in a verdict that was broadcast live on national television.
Zuma's rape trial has fanned tensions in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), where he remains a widely popular figure and was until recently seen as the frontrunner to succeed President Thabo Mbeki in 2009.
More than 2,000 pro-Zuma supporters staged a noisy demonstration outside the Johannesburg courthouse, the latest in a series of protests attesting to the grassroots popularity of a man many affectionately dub "JZ."
The 64-year-old anti-apartheid veteran had pleaded not guilty to raping his accuser at his Johannesburg home last November. But his lawyers said he did have consensual sex with the woman, a 31-year-old AIDS activist.
Conviction for rape could have brought a jail term of up to 15 years.
Zuma was hit with the rape case following a separate graft scandal last year which prompted Mbeki to sack him as the country's second-highest official.
He is due to go on trial in July on the corruption charges, which he has denied and described as part of a shadowy political plot by his enemies in the ANC to end his presidential hopes.
Zuma's supporters say the allegations are part of a political plot to destroy any hope of him succeeding Mbeki.
The rape trial, with testimony that raised questions about Zuma's understanding of AIDS and his attitude toward women, and an unrelated corruption case that goes to trial later this year may have severely tainted his reputation. But Zuma, who during apartheid was imprisoned on Robben Island and then from exile headed the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), remains deputy president of the ANC and enjoys wide popularity in the rank and file of the party.
Zuma supporters, dancing and singing protest songs and hymns praising "Zuma, my president," gathered outside the Johannesburg High Court, where tight security included a police helicopter hovering overhead.
Anti-rape activists built a "wall of shame," adorned with posters against sexual violence and a kanga -- the traditional African wrap. Zuma alleged that the woman was sending him a sexual invitation by wearing a flimsy kanga when she said goodnight to him.
"This kanga is not an invitation [to sex]," read the poster.
In the trial, Zuma has testified that the woman, whom he knew since she was a small child, had encouraged him with cellphone messages and flirtatious behavior and did not resist his advances in the bedroom.
The woman has testified that she "froze" when faced with advances from the man she said she regarded as a father, and said she would never have agreed to having sex without a condom.
As a former head of the South African National AIDS Council, Zuma shocked many by arguing against scientific evidence that there was little danger of him contracting HIV from unprotected sex, and that his taking a shower after intercourse with the woman reduced the risk of transmission.
Doctors and health activists fear Zuma's testimony could undermine years of prevention campaigns against a virus that has infected up to 6 million South Africans.