President Jacob Zuma withdrew his claim for damages against cartoonist “Zapiro” to avoid setting a legal precedent, the presidency said on Sunday.
“The president... 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,” his spokesman Mac Maharaj said in a statement on Sunday.
He said Zuma had decided to withdraw his claim, made in December 2008, against Jonathan “Zapiro” Shapiro and Avusa Media, the publishers of The Sunday Times, and the newspaper's editor at the time Mondli Makhanya “after careful consideration and consultation with his legal team”.
He had also decided to make a contribution to their costs.
“It is the president's view that a legal battle against individuals and institutions will be an unnecessary diversion,” said Maharaj.
Zuma would rather encourage the people he was taking action against to become partners in efforts to address the problems facing the country, and to get South Africans to reach out to each other across historical divides to forge a common nationhood, “putting the country first.”
Zuma had sought R5 million in damages for defamation and impairment of his personal dignity over the publication of Zapiro's Lady Justice rape cartoon in September 2008.
He reduced his claim from R4 million to R100,000 last week, media lawyer Dario Milo said at the time. Zuma dropped his claim that the cartoon harmed his dignity, but maintained that it had harmed his reputation. He had still wanted an unconditional apology.
The matter was to have been heard by the High Court in Johannesburg on Monday.
The cartoon depicted Zuma loosening his trousers while Lady Justice was held down by since expelled African National Congress Youth League president Julius Malema, Congress of SA Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, SA Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, all saying: “Go for it, boss.”
Zuma was acquitted of a rape charge 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,” said Maharaj.
The representation was “hurtful and defamatory”, as the respondents had admitted in papers submitted to the High Court in Johannesburg, he said.
“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.”
Maharaj said Zuma's decision to withdraw the matter was informed by three major considerations.
“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,” he said.
It was for this reason he wanted to avoid setting a legal precedent.
Maharaj said Zuma also wanted to encourage South Africans to solve problems caused by racist attitudes by removing the racial imprint on the way the country's society was organised and structured, and through continuous political action and open dialogue across racial and cultural divides.
Matters relating to dignity and the public standing of individuals could not be mediated exclusively through the courts, he said.
“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.”
Zuma's decision was also rooted in his attempts to find a way out of the difficulties the country and its people were facing because of the global economic meltdown and its accompanying frustrations, and his call on all South Africans to work together to find lasting solutions. -Sapa