On perplexed editors, cartoonists and spin doctors ...

Jeremy Gordin discusses why Zuma dropped his defamation case against Zapiro, and other weightier matters

I think it was one of Freddie Schiller's characters who said, "Stay true to the dreams of thy youth." I try, my friends, I try.

For example 10 years ago, or whenever it was that I saw these paisley-type, French swimming trunks in Grant Ravenscroft's Croft & Co window in Parkview, I said to myself: "One day, my boy, when you're rich and famous, when you write that earth-shattering novel of drivel, Fifty Shades of Black, White, Coloured & Indian, replete with nipple clamps and what-have-you, you're gonna own one of dem trunks." (When I give myself little pep talks, I talk funny.) 

I could see myself, in the south of France, a glass of ice cold white wine in one hand, a canapé in the other, a couple of nipple clamps on my nipples, a Churchill between my teeth, Maureen Isaacson (aka Morag ben-Yitzhak), the former books editor of The Sunday Independent, rubbing oil on to my shoulders ...and of course me wearing those trunks.

But I never did become rich and famous and I never wrote that novel (well, not yet) - and I baulked at entering a store where the under-rods were about three grand a pair and the trunks were therefore probably about 10 grand a pop. (Denis Beckett used occasionally to sidle in to buy one cigar.)

But gradually I got to know Grant and his gorgeous wife Marisa and pretty soon I was taking money out of the home loan for a box of Cubans or the occasional Reyn Spooner ... Both remind of Hunter S Thompson, which is a good  feeling.

Anyway, Grant is now re-calibrating Croft & Co, turning it into an upmarket delicatessen, cigar and wine boutique (I guess that's the word). On Saturday, therefore, he flogged the remaining clobber at about 90 percent off.

So ... I have dem trunks now. They're not French, by the way, they're Chinese - Red China, as we used to say in my youth - but never mind. The moral of the story: Stay true to the dreams of thy youth. Or as Theodor Herzl said: If you will it, it is no dream. Just walk down the road in Parkview, Johannesburg, Seffrica.

Another project of mine that was derailed due to the arduous times through which I have been eking out my days was the completion of my MA dissertation (Aristotelian influences on the thought of Rav Maimonides in his ‘A Guide for the Perplexed'). But every year or so I get a humorous note from my learned supervisor, Professor Johan Strijdom, enquiring whether I am still alive and so on.

His latest email reads as follows: "Again the end of another year, and alas of my sabbatical! Used last month to visit Romania, Ukraineand Poland on my way to a conference in Germany. Always wanted to see Krakow, from where my stamvader Jozef Stradom (a Jew from Kazimierz) came as converted Calvinist to South Africa via northern Belgium, about 300 years ago." Strijdom continues: "...Am reading Agamben now ..."

Whoa! That stopped me dead in my tracks, as it were. C'mon now, be honest: do you know who Agamben is? Notwithstanding my extensive library - we now have two in the garden, library aleph and library bet - and long nights toiling by the light of an oil lamp, I didn't have a bloody clue.

Turns out he's Giorgio (not Armani but) Agamben - and he's an Italian political philosopher who is 10 days younger than Jacob Zuma and is "best known for his work investigating the concepts of the ‘state of exception' and ‘homo sacer'." I have no idea (yet) what either of those is, though I suspect homo sacer is not a gay reading group.

Point is this. I thought to myself: gee, that Johan, he is so lucky that he gets to spend so much time, courtesy of his PhD, in those heady circles - while I have to spend my days in the baking sun and snake-filled swamps of pedestrian MA philology, swinging my cutlass, being eaten by mosquitoes, as I try to track Aristotle in Maimonides. Even worse, I have to make my almost-living reading the lowest of the low - i.e. those who like me write in newspapers or reasonable facsimiles thereof.

We segue, friends, from Strijdom and Agamben to the mighty Star newspaper - queen of the morning products - page 18 on Friday 26 October. There is the editor's Friday column: always verbose (yeah, yeah, I know, I don't have much room to speak) and remarkably confused.

But this one, baby, o baby, this one is, as the Americans say, a doozy. The headline is: "How Ramaphosa lost touch with the masses." So far, so good. You get the picture, yeah? We know where we're going, yes?

Okay, here's the first par (with just a little annotation from me): "As a businessman working in the genteel [why genteel? surely he means "crass"] environs of Sandton and away from the vagaries of life [vagaries of life?? this is not the bloody English countryside in the 19th century, china] in Marikana, Cyril Ramaphosa was bound to lose that nebulous [what?] thing called the Midas touch."


Ja, you've got it. Makhudu Sefara (he's the editor) actually meant to say: "Ramaphosa was bound to lose the common touch." But he just writes rubbish. Or, rather, he has no idea what he's actually writing - he just strings together vaguely remembered phrases. And here's thing of it: the sub-editors let it through. Well, you know how it goes. The order comes down: don't fxxx with the editor's copy or you'll get into deep diddly.

And here's the second thing of it. This is the guy who is so confused about what is what that he got offended with Anton Harber for saying that he (Sefara) was a member of the Venda Nostra (it seems he's actually a Pedi). But it wasn't Anton who said it; it was me! He confused me with Harber! I can't ever remember having been so insulted and hurt. I mean, this Sefara really knows how to hurt a guy, doesn't he?

And here's the third thing of it: this scholar is the editor of a major newspaper. This is the guy that the chief exec, Tony Coward, put in there, with the agreement of the Oyrish, to save the nation (and presumably the profits). 

Am I being petty? Of course I am. And of course I know that neither Peter Sullivan nor Moegsien "Moegs" Williams was a reader ofAgamben or even of Nadine Gordimer. But, still, I do expect some standards from the old place down in Sauer Street. I mean Harvey Tyson might have been deeply undecided and vague, but at least he never lost his common touch and he could put together a cogent if nebulous sentence.

We move, brothers and sisters, to the president of the beloved republic, JG Zuma, his spokesman Mac Maharaj, and ... here he comes, folks (roll the drums) ... Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, a fellow deeply in need of attention especially since that Brett Murray guy hogged the limelight with that spear of the nation painting.

Zuma, or rather his lawyers, have dropped Zuma's long-standing legal action against Zapiro for R5-million over the 2008 cartoon, "The Rape of Lady Justice".

You remember the cartoon? It depicted Zuma apparently preparing to rape Lady Justice while his buddies, Gwede Mantashe of the ANC, Blade Nzimande of the communist party, and Julius Malema, (then) president of the ANC Yoof [COR] League, held down the good lady.

Now, why is everyone so surprised? For one thing, if my sexagenarian memory serves me, Zuma then had a, er, rather strange spokesperson by the name of Liesl Gottert (whereby hangs another tale) who had found Zuma some rather, er, odd lawyers.

But now Zuma has Michael Hulley-gulley in the oval office. So obviously there's going to be some changes. And Michael knows full well that you (i.e. Zuma) don't win that kind of money under SA law for defamation, damage to reputation, injury to dignity, etc. No precedent.

For another thing, it always seemed likely that the action would be aborted at the 11th hour, because it was clear that, whatever the (de)merits of the case, Zuma's lawyers wanted to keep it hovering around so as to keep the pressure on Zapiro: it must be somewhat stressful to have the president bringing a multi-million rand action against you.

It's like having, on your tuchis, for four years, a painful pimple that you can't pop. Sort of a condom that would prevent more cartoons of the same sort. This stratagem didn't work, but that's not the point, is it?

Now then, a learned friend of mine, a senior counsel, with whom I occasionally take some judicial tea, said Zuma et al had to drop the case because Zuma was going to have his posterior well caned, legally-speaking of course. Zapiro's lawyers would have argued that our constitution guarantees freedom of speech, regardless of taste, and that politicians are fair game for political cartoonists, yadda yadda fishpaste; that Zuma had been charged with rape; and that at the time the ANC had clearly been threatening the so-called justice system.

But I am not so sure that Zuma would have done badly in court. I think the cartoon was vicious and in poor taste. Zuma had indeed been tried for rape but he was acquitted and it was clear from the trial that, whatever he might have been guilty of, it wasn't rape. And to accuse the ANC, the ruling party, of wanting to gang-rape the courts is somewhat over the top.

Anyway, I think other matters played a bigger role in the decision by Zuma and Hulley to dump the case.

First, dealing with the DA attempt to go back on the 2009 decision by Mokotedi Mpshe to drop all charges against Zuma is far more serious than squabbling with Zapiro. Second, the squall over the boodle, alleged to be R250-million, set aside for refurbishing Zuma's Nkandla ranch looks set to blow into a hurricane.

Finally, this is no time, a month-and-half before Mangaung, for the president to appear in a sideshow court case that might have ended with eggie all over his punim.

All of which we understand, yes? What I don't get is why Zapiro called the withdrawal of the case "a great victory for freedom of expression and for satire and for comment" and why Mac Maharaj, usually a pretty intelligent, guy, said the president's decision was mainly based on a concern "for the principle of free speech".

Yeah, right. And I'm Brad Pitt and I'm playing fly-half for the Boks in the forthcoming northern hemisphere tour. And I'll be wearing my new trunks from Croft & Co. Stay true to the dreams of thy youth.

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