Why Zuma withdrew his case against Zapiro - Presidency

Mac Maharaj says President didn't want to set a legal precedent that could've limited free speech

President Zuma withdraws case against Mr Shapiro and Avusa

28 October 2012

In December 2008 President Jacob Zuma instituted a legal claim against Avusa Media, publishers of The Sunday Times, the newspaper's editor at the time Mr Mondli Makhanya, and its editorial cartoonist Mr Jonathan Shapiro, AKA "Zapiro". The damages sought - R5 million - were in compensation for defamation and impaired personal dignity (see here).

This followed the publication in September that year of a "Zapiro" cartoon in the Sunday Times, titled "The Rape of Lady Justice". The cartoon depicted President Zuma preparing to "rape" a representation of "Lady Justice", while various other individuals held her down for him.

This representation was hurtful and defamatory, as the respondents themselves have subsequently admitted in papers submitted to the South Gauteng High Court. This candid admission, whilst sought to be justified on other grounds, at least reflects an appreciation of the hurt and harm that such depiction brought about.

Moreover, in depicting President Zuma as a would-be rapist, the cartoon sought to play to discredited and legally disproved accusations made against him in 2006. The newspaper and the cartoonist wanted to perpetrate an image of the President as a sexual deviant, despite a court of law rejecting the allegations against him and clearing his name.

After careful consideration and consultation with his legal team, President Zuma has taken a decision to withdraw his claim against the respondents, and pay a contribution to their costs.

Three major considerations inform the President's decision in this regard:

  • Whereas the President believes that in an open and democratic society, a fine and sensitive balance needs to be maintained between the exercise of civil rights such as freedom of speech, and the dignity and privacy of others, that balance should be struck in favour of constitutional freedoms. The President therefore would like to avoid setting a legal precedent that may have the effect of limiting the public exercise of free speech, with the unforeseen consequences this may have on our media, public commentators and citizens.
  • Matters relating to dignity and the public standing of individuals cannot be mediated exclusively through the courts. Essentially what lies at the heart of the Sunday Times' publication of the cartoon was a set of deeply ingrained prejudices regarding not only the President, but which extend to views about African males and sexual mores. While the courts exist in part to protect citizens against racial and cultural prejudice and bigotry, those scourges will not be eradicated from our body politic through litigation alone. Defeating racist attitudes requires removing the racial imprint on the way South African society is organised and structured, as well as continuous political action and open dialogue between South Africans across racial and cultural divides. The President wishes to encourage this route to solving such problems.
  • In light of recent economic and political developments, the President has called on all South Africans to work together to find lasting solutions to the challenges that face us as a nation. The President has convened a summit of the social partners two weeks ago, in his effort to find a way out of the difficult moment our country finds itself in, relating to the global economic meltdown and frustrations by the people on the ground.

Among the short and long-term strategies which the President and the government have embarked upon are:

1. Encouraging negotiations between unions and employer groups to restore calm to the country's mining industry;

2. Strengthening law and order in the country's mining belt;

3. Working with business to address the underlying socio-economic causes of the recent unrest, particularly the working and living conditions of mine workers and mining communities;

4. Encouraging more prudence in the public and private sector around executive packages, so that we begin to close the widening income gaps in our economy;

5. Championing a massive infrastructure rollout programme which will help fast-track growth and create much needed employment opportunities.

The President is determined to continue to lead these programmes from the front, as well as lead the efforts of South Africans to reach out to each other across historical divides to forge a common nationhood. It is the President's view that a legal battle against individuals and institutions will be an unnecessary diversion. He would rather encourage the people he was taking action against to become partners in the above efforts, putting the country first.

President Zuma calls on all South Africans, in whatever walk of life they find themselves, to rededicate themselves both in word and deed to the inspiring vision of 1994, and to work harder to put our country on a path towards shared growth, greater equality and common nationhood.

President Zuma wishes to see an end to prejudice, insults and personal attacks in public debates and commentary and the restoration of respect, ubuntu and common decency.

Statement issued by Mac Maharaj, The Presidency, October 28 2012

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter