The ghosts of the past came back to haunt President Jacob Zuma in the most embarrassing way last night when, in front of dignitaries and a live TV audience, he was reminded about his decade-old rape trial.
Four young women stood in front of Zuma as he took the stage at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) operation centre in Pretoria.
One of their placards displayed the name of the HIV-positive woman who accused Zuma of rape almost 11 years ago.
Zuma, who was then the deputy president of the ANC, was acquitted of rape after a widely publicised trial that contained graphic details about his sex act with the young woman.
Zuma’s rape accuser is known as Khwezi, a name given to her to protect her identity,
“I’m one in 3,” another placard read, referring to a claim that one in three women in South Africa will be raped in her lifetime.
This was followed by other messages, which read: “10 years later”, “Khanga” and “Remember Khwezi”.
Within minutes, the slogans were trending on Twitter.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had earlier caused a commotion when party members walked out as Zuma was called to the stage.
In the rape trial in 2006, Khwezi laid bare details of how she was sexually abused by Zuma, whom she had considered to be a father figure as he had been a close friend of her father, who died in exile when she was young.
She laid the rape charge despite much intimidation in late 2005, alleging that Zuma had violated her while she was visiting his home in Johannesburg.
During the trial, she was humiliated by Zuma’s supporters, who labelled her “nondindwa” – a bitch.
Her mother’s home in Durban was vandalised by a mob of men who stole some items, including her personal diaries.
The rape trial divided the nation. It was during his testimony that Zuma, who knew Khwezi was HIV-positive, famously said he had taken a shower immediately after sex with her to minimise his chances of contracting the virus.
When Zuma was acquitted in 2006, the woman and her mother fled the country and were granted asylum in the Netherlands.
She has since returned to South Africa, but has kept a low profile, saying that she wanted to carry on with her life without further humiliation.
As the silent protest took place last night, Zuma continued to read his speech, in which he thanked the IEC for a job well done.
IEC officials were caught by surprise by the activists and, because the speech was being broadcast live, they were unsure about what to do.
Members of the audience included senior ANC officials, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and former Auditor-General Terence Nombembe.
ANC national executive committee member Lindiwe Zulu tried to intervene, and asked IEC spokesperson Kate Bapela why the activists were being allowed to stand in front of the stage.
She then quickly walked over to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who looked shell-shocked, and spoke to him.
When Zuma concluded his speech, he started to walk towards his seat next to Ramaphosa, and one of the young women, Simamkele Dlakavu, said: “Remember Khwezi.”
Zuma’s bodyguards then tried to grab the activists and they fell backwards towards the stage.
The women immediately got up, and Dlakavu repeated that Zuma remember Khwezi.
This led to a scuffle and screams as they were aggressively dragged out of the venue. Security personnel at that point also wanted to arrest a journalist who spoke out against the way the women were being manhandled.
After briefly being detained, Dlakavu said they were “okay”.
“This was about remembering Khwezi, the woman who said Zuma raped her. Organisations like the One in Nine Campaign still support her. We believe her,” she told City Press. Dlakavu is an activist at Wits University and is a member of the EFF.
IEC deputy chair Terry Tselane apologised to Zuma, saying the women caught everyone by surprise.
But ANC Women’s League president Bathabile Dlamini had no sympathy for the activists, and she said no head of state deserved to be treated like that.
Dlamini wanted the IEC to explain how the protest was allowed to go ahead. She added that all political parties should be united on the serious issue of rape and it should not be trivialised.