CAPE TOWN -- A judge acquitted the deputy head of South Africa's ruling party of rape charges yesterday in a trial that divided the country and revealed a deep split over the future leadership of the party and the country.
A jubilant Jacob Zuma stood before a crowd of dancing supporters outside Johannesburg's High Court after the verdict, holding two microphones in one fist, singing an old antiapartheid song that his supporters blasted onto the street throughout his trial: ''Bring Me My Machine Gun."
''Today the bad dreams have evaporated," Zuma said, speaking in Zulu.
The whereabouts of his accuser, a 31-year-old family friend who is HIV positive, were not known, although local newspapers have suggested that she may go into exile for her protection.
At one point during the trial, Zuma supporters burned her portrait.
Zuma supporters clad in traditional Zulu animal skin costumes sprang to their feet in the courtroom and cheered when Judge Willem van der Merwe announced his verdict. Women wailed. One camera in the courtroom focused on silent tears pouring down the cheeks of one of the complaint's supporters.
The judge accepted Zuma's version that his accuser had agreed to sex. He scathingly rejected her complaint, saying she was a strong person, not the meek, mild, submissive person she was made out to be, and that she had a history of making false rape accusations. Anti-rape groups said the judge's findings would set their cause back years.
Van der Merwe also strongly criticized Zuma, 64, for having sex with an HIV-woman positive woman half his age who was a family friend and not his wife.
The verdict did not end Zuma's political troubles. Analysts suggested that Zuma's claim that the woman conveyed her desire for sex by wearing a short skirt and his view that he cut his risk of getting AIDS by taking a shower afterward had tainted him and undermined his ambitions to succeed Thabo Mbeki as South Africa's president in 2009.
Zuma, former deputy president and former head of the National AIDS Council, faces another large hurdle in July when he stands trial in Durban on corruption charges.
With rape a hot issue in a country with the world's highest rate of reported rapes, the trial is perhaps the most contentious since the end of the apartheid era, dividing many South Africans and revealing a deep split in the ruling African National Congress.
The verdict yesterday was broadcast live on radio and television while thousands of Zuma's supporters, many bussed in from his stronghold of Kwa-Zulu-Natal, waited outside the court.
Before the verdict, some commentators described an atmosphere of national tension over the case.
''If he is found not guilty of rape, do he and his supporters get to run the country next?" wrote Peter Bruce, editor of Business Day, in a column. ''If he is found guilty, does a tidal wave of poor and rural and traditional black rage break over our tender young democracy and its brittle institutions? There's no point in telling ourselves we aren't nervous. We are."
After the verdict, women's rape support groups said they had been flooded with calls.
''We're just angry," said Chantel Cooper, director of Rape Crisis Cape Town. ''We're getting phone calls from absolute strangers saying 'What can we do?' A lot of women are very frustrated."
''We were horrified when [the judge] said she was sick and needed help. It points to the fact that what happens quite often in rape cases is that you focus on the survivor and you leave it up to her to defend herself and no questions are asked of the perpetrator," Cooper said.
She said throughout the trial many victims of rape had contacted the organization saying they would not report a rape because of the trauma suffered by Zuma's accuser.
The judge defended his decision to allow a long and intense cross-examination of the woman about her sexual history, saying it was relevant to her credibility and motives.
He was critical of interest groups and supporters on both sides who broadcast their views while the trial was going on.
Outside the court, Zuma attacked the media and others who he said had an interest in undermining him, a clear reference to opponents within the African National Congress.
''A person who is charged remains innocent until proven otherwise. This is one of the golden rules of our constitution and the press broke this rule," Zuma said.