Johannesburg — IF YOU are the chief of police, and someone files a complaint of sexual harassment against a powerful politician you admire, what do you do?
This is the conundrum facing commissioner Jackie Selebi. Press reports that a complaint was laid in connection with a rape charge against former deputy president Jacob Zuma can be the result of broadly three possibilities.
First, they are simply a smear campaign designed to undercut Zuma's attempt to build political support in response to the corruption charges he faces. Second, there is a legitimate rape complaint, which is currently under investigation. Or third, the shock and trauma of the incident led the complainant to go to the police. But now, as happens so often in rape cases, the victim has backtracked.
In the cold light of day, when balanced against the slim chances of justice being served, rape victims tragically often do back off. And despite the fact that, as a result, justice does not get done, it is hard not to sympathise with their reasoning. Once they get over the horror of the incident, rape victims begin to place into the balance the ordeal they are likely to have to endure if they persist with the charge. In addition, the intensely political nature of this particular case can only add to the pressure.
From being someone obviously worthy of our sympathy, the rape victim could suddenly find herself a political pawn -- and may already be -- in a game where her personal trauma is a secondary issue to the political ambitions of those much more powerful. In this kind of scenario, it is hardly likely that the victim's needs and problems will be highest on the agenda.
So it might not be ideal, but it might be understandable that the victim has had a change of heart about pursuing the case.
On the little we know about the current case, this third possibility seems the most likely. The version printed by the Sunday Times suggests that the victim demurred when asked about the incident, but that police have in fact received a complaint. But the Sunday Independent later reported, and other newspapers have subsequently reported similarly, that the alleged victim claims she was not raped at all. If both are reporting correctly, the only explanation consistent with both reports is that a complaint has been laid, but the victim later recanted.
Still, this is all in the realm of speculation. Selebi's first duty, and in fact his only way out of the dilemma, is to do the simple and obvious thing: tell the truth. If no complaint was ever laid, then the investigation should go in a different direction, and those guilty of spreading false rumours should be exposed. If there was no complaint, and there is no investigation, the matter should be put to rest quickly.
Normally, police procedure is that names are not named until a court appearance. But these are not normal circumstances. As long as police decline to say whether there is a complaint or not, the suspicion will persist among Zuma's supporters that the whole issue is an elaborate plot -- an allegation they have made already in connection with other aspects of the case. This seems a good time to depart from established procedure so as to not inflame an already dire situation.
Even in the third situation, it is important for Selebi to explain the situation clearly and honestly. If the alleged victim does not intend to press her case, really there is little police can do, since a conviction without the testimony of the victim is in normal circumstances a nonstarter. But if Selebi does not come forward quickly, suspicions will grow from the opposite direction -- this time from Mbeki supporters, who might easily imagine that Selebi is influencing the investigation in a political way.
As is so often the case, the truth hurts, but it hurts less that allowing rumour to run rampant.