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[BOOK EXTRACT] Khwezi: the remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo

In 2006 Jacob Zuma was on trial for the rape of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, better known as Khwezi. In the aftermath of the trial, which saw Zuma acquitted, Khwezi was vilified by his many supporters and forced to take refuge outside of South Africa. Ten years later, Khwezi passed away… But not before she had slipped back into South Africa and started work with Redi Tlhabi on a book about her life.

The battle to save Zuma from a rape conviction and, by extension, to ensure his political survival was fought inside and outside the courtroom, using every tactic imaginable. It does not matter whether any of these strategies worked, whether a sangoma could really weaken the opposition and determine the outcome of the trial.

What is important is that some believed it could.

The world moved on, but not everyone whom the trial’s flames had burnt was able to move with it. Long after Judge van der Merwe made the closing statement of his judgment – ‘In my judgment the state has not proved the accused’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. The accused is found not guilty and is discharged’ – the smell of burnt-out embers lingered.

Legally, Zuma is not a rapist. As law expert Pierre de Vos says, ‘PW Botha and FW De Klerk have never been found guilty of committing a crime. Does not mean they did nothing wrong. On the contrary.’ The trial and its aftermath presented the nation with a philosophical question: How are we to understand ourselves as a people, when we expect so little from those who lead?

Barney Mthombothi offers a sobering answer, an indictment of our society:

It’s not as if we didn’t know. Khwezi, the woman who accused Zuma of rape, described the incident in graphic detail. She told of her horror on opening her eyes to see the man she’s always regarded as a father stark naked and about to mount her. Picture the scene. Freezeframe it. Such a man we continue to call our president, a man worthy of respect. Khwezi, meanwhile, has been hounded out of existence – nameless, faceless and even stateless. We still don’t know her name; we still don’t know what she looks like, or where she is or whether she’s being looked after. We just don’t care, because if we did Zuma wouldn’t be our president.

As renowned former Constitutional Court judge Zak Yacoob said in 2014, ‘I have a serious difference of opinion. I had a serious problem with the Zuma judgment. If it were me, I would have set aside the judgment.’

His next comment resonates with an important theme of this book – that there are many ways at arriving at and interpreting the truth and a court of law offers one way. It must be acknowledged that this is not a bad thing, otherwise many would be wrongly convicted based on the judge’s own prejudice and philosophical leanings. The journey towards the truth is an arduous, fraught exercise.

As Yacoob continues, ‘Trials and judges do not decide the truth, judges never know the truth’; indeed, Yacoob ‘believed the Zuma trial was not about finding the truth but a “story telling” contest between two opposing sides, with the judgment based on which side told the better story’.

I feel vindicated by this.

I asked Fezekile whether she had ever thought about what she would do if she lost the case.

‘Not at the time that I laid the charge. I was just scared but defiant. No man was going to get away with this again.’

‘And when you actually lost? What was your reaction, the first thing that came to your mind?’

She breathed heavily. Her mind seemed to be wandering. Not for the first time, I wondered whether I would get her back, if she would return to this moment. She had an irritating habit of doing this, wandering off and not coming back to finish a conversation we had started. It happened when she was overwhelmed or stressed by a topic.

Sometimes, she couldn’t seem to keep quiet and would go on until she had run out of words. But sometimes, she just switched off.

Hours later, when I had long given up on a response, she sent me an SMS stating that losing was not the end of the matter for her. ‘I did not do it to win. There was no contest. I was just fighting for myself.’

‘But did that fight seem more bruising because the case was lost? Would it not be comforting to have received justice?’

‘It depends what you mean by justice.’

‘How do you understand the concept of justice, in relation to the case?’

‘If by justice you mean the rapist going to jail, then that is not how I see it. It is not how I believe it. But if by justice you mean not being victimised, called names, doubted, not having Ma sick from it all, not being followed, not being poor as a result of this sordid affair, then maybe we are talking.’

‘So, there was no justice as far as you are concerned because in the second part of your message, you have just described your life in the last ten years and possibly your life as a child.’

‘Bingo. Paradise, nè?’

'Khwezi: the remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo' by Redi Thlabi is published by Jonathan Ball Books.

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