William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Stand aside Zille, Zuma wants to practise on Zapiro

President Jacob Zuma and his legions might be afraid of taking on the formidable table-thumping Godzille, but they’re game for a couple of rounds against the mild-mannered Jewish guy in the corner.

The Presidency, clearly subscribers to the military axiom of picking one’s battles, was quick to challenge cartoonist Zapiro, who had just klapped Zuma in a protracted court battle, to a duel with loaded lecterns. Zuma’s spokesperson Mac Maharaj made the suggestion after Zuma had folded on a R5-million action against the Sunday Times and the cartoonist – real name Jonathan Shapiro – over his depiction of Zuma unbuckling his trousers to rape Lady Justice.

Since then, the Presidency appears to have backed off the idea. That won’t surprise Helen Zille, the Democratic Alliance leader who has over the years repeatedly challenged the president to public debates on issues of national importance.

Despite Zuma once boasting that he was willing to debate anything, with anyone, at any time, the president has steadfastly ignored Zille challenges. So, although for a brief, shining moment it seemed that even though the president won’t take on a politician with a sharp tongue, his designated hitter would go the distance against a cartoonist with a sharp pencil… Alas, no.

The Presidency is right to retreat, both from the courtroom and from the debating chamber. Maharaj confidently declares that Zuma’s legal team would have won the case and that they withdrew merely as a gesture of ‘granting something to freedom of expression’. Truth is that they knew they were going to get creamed in court and there is no reason to think it would be any different in a public debate.

The facts tell the story. When the legal action was instituted four years ago, Zuma demanded R4-million demand for damages to his reputation and R1-million for damages to his dignity. It might have been the daunting prospect – given some of Zuma’s cringeworthy public behaviour over the years – of arguing in court that an ephemeral cartoon had impaired his dignity to the tune of a million bucks, but in any case, this leg of the action was quickly dropped.

Then, as Monday’s court date loomed, Zuma reduced the defamation claim to a paltry R100 000, to be accompanied by an unconditional apology. When the defendants rejected the offer and moves by the Zuma legal team for yet another postponement faltered, the president dramatically folded. Not only did his lawyers withdraw the action unreservedly, but they also agreed to pay half the defendants’ costs.

With a tough leadership contest looming at Mangaung, political strategy had triumphed what was from the outset, stripped of its skimpy jurisprudential justifications, never much more than simple bullying. It is using the threat of huge damages actions to curb the media.

Whatever face Maharaj tries to put on it, this is a rout, not a gesture of goodwill. And the failure here does not augur well for the success of the 12 other actions Zuma has instituted against the media and which are still pending.

A pity, nevertheless, that some kind of Zuma-Zapiro debate will not be held. It would be interesting to ask why Zuma’s lawyers persisted in an action that was patently so weak that not only did they not dare enter a courtroom with it, but in settling they also readily agreed to underwrite half of the other side’s costs.

It would be interesting to ask what this self-indulgent little legal jaunt has cost South African taxpayers, for it is they, one assumes, who will be picking up the multi-million rand lawyers’ bills. It also would be interesting to know what the other 12 actions have cost the taxpayer thus far, all for the sake of placating Zuma’s ego.

It’s perhaps time that Zuma’s lawyers took another look, based not on their own pecuniary interests, at the prospects of success in the remaining anti-media cases launched on behalf of the thin-skinned president. Then withdraw them, as an act of goodwill, of course.

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