For 48% of Americans, Donald Trump’s electoral victory last month was a blow not only to their political preferences, but to the longstanding trend of U.S. presidents upholding decorum, civility, and respect; he now joins the ranks of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as one of the world’s coarsest politicians.
But Trump’s ascension to power also cements him in the small circle of world leaders who have been accused of rape. That lawsuit, which Trump has called “frivolous,” was brought by a woman who accused Trump of raping her two decades ago when she was a teenager, and was dropped in November. Accusations have also long plagued former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and former French presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But only a handful of current world leaders have faced rape charges before going on to win a presidential election, including South African president Jacob Zuma. This year marks the 10th anniversary of that infamous case.
In late 2005, a young woman, identified at the time by the alias Khwezi, alleged that current South African president Jacob Zuma raped her at his home. Khwezi, whose real name was Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo and who died earlier this year, was the daughter of a former African National Congress member who was imprisoned alongside Zuma during apartheid. Their families had become close, and prior to the alleged incident, Khwezi considered Zuma to be an uncle figure.
Zuma’s supporters believed that the rape accusation had been orchestrated by rivals to bring him down, and Khwezi was subsequently vilified in the media and by the public. Chants of “burn the bitch” were common outside of the courthouse. Khwezi was HIV-positive and identified as a lesbian, yet had also had sex with men in the past. Zuma’s team of experienced defense lawyers used her sexual history to portray her as a sexually free woman who readily consented to sex with Zuma. After Zuma was acquitted, Khwezi’s home was burned down and she, along with her mother, were driven out of South Africa. In 2009, Zuma was elected president of South Africa, and re-elected in 2014.
“The whole narrative of what happened to her was shoved under the carpet,” Mpumi Mathabela, a coordinator for the anti-gender violence organization One in Nine Campaign, told Fusion.
One in Nine started in 2006 as a collective of activists organizing to support Khwezi as she underwent grueling cross-examination during the trial and public vilification. At the time, the organization’s name represented the statistic regarding the number of rapes that are actually reported to the police. But as of 2016, 10 years since the Khwezi trial, that figure has dropped to as low as 1 in 25 women in certain provinces.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer rapes are taking place, though, says Mathabela, but rather that fewer victims are choosing to seek justice. She contends that this is due, in part, to South Africa’s often dismissive and often victim-blaming culture when it comes to sexual assault.
In September, the publishing company Pearson came under fire when parents and students discovered a question in a textbook that insinuated a young girl’s “behavior” was to blame for her sexual assault.
“Rape has been normalized,” Mathabela says. “We live in a patriarchal system and we can't escape that. The way Khwezi was treated reinforced what women already knew about how we are treated, but also [shows] what happens when you are raped by a man in power.”
While rape, along with workplace sexual harassment, are all too common experiences for South African women, those charged with protecting and serving South Africans are also frequent perpetrators of sexual violence.
A few years after Zuma’s trial, the One in Nine Campaign organized around the case of a woman known as Tebogo, a Johannesburg Metropolitan police officer. One night after her patrol had ended, Tebogo says she was brutally raped by her supervisor in her own home. After being hospitalized for depression, she returned to her job at the police station, where she was forced to continue working in close proximity to the man she accused of rape. After his acquittal months later in 2009, the men in the office began referring to him as “Msholozi”—Jacob Zuma’s tribal nickname. Not long after, Tebogo resigned from her position.
In a report from the Institute for Race Relations, 26% of officer misconduct cases surveyed between 2011 and 2015 pertained to rape or sexual assault. A Cape Town-based survey of sex workers indicates that 12% claim to have been raped by police, while another 28% report being asked for sex in exchange for release from custody. And between April 2013 and March 2014, South Africa’s Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the main agency tasked with investigating police misconduct, received over 160 complaints of rape perpetrated by police officers. Only five resulted in criminal convictions.
Thabane Khumalo, a veteran officer and training instructor within the South African Police Service, believes the low conviction rate somehow proves that the numerous allegations against police are unfounded. "In my point of view, most of these things people say happened…you'll see it on TV and the report will say 'police officers were involved.’ But after that, you see nothing. You don't hear about the outcome,” Khumalo says.
Imagine what such attitudes can do in a country where sexual violence is so pervasive that the nation is routinely referred to as “the rape capital of the world.” Now one of Zuma’s top political rivals as the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party, Julius Malema chimed in on the Khwezi case in 2009 with a statement that exposes the horrifyingly institutional sexism of the country’s leaders and power-brokers.
“When a woman didn’t enjoy it, she leaves early in the morning. Those who had a nice time will wait until the sun comes out, request breakfast, and ask for taxi money,” Malema said to a crowd of students in 2009. “In the morning, that lady requested breakfast and taxi money.” The comments don’t sound so far off from Trump’s own caught-on-tape moment about grabbing women “by the pussy.”
The events and outcomes surrounding Zuma’s trial 10 years ago have sent a strong message to both victims and perpetrators in South Africa: The more authority you wield, the less likely you’ll be held accountable if you commit sexual violence. And as Trump continues to surround himself with the likes of Roger Ailes, another man deeply embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal, one can only wonder if that same message is being communicated here in the U.S.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that only two current world leaders have been accused of rape before going on to win a presidential election. This has since been updated. We regret the error.
Liz is a fourth-year student at the University of Chicago where she studies political science and human rights. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Black Youth Project, and SB Nation.