Zuma drops claim of defamation against South African cartoonist

Tue, Oct 30, 2012, 00:00

SOUTH AFRICA’s most popular and influential cartoonist, Jonathon Shapiro, yesterday hailed president Jacob Zuma’s decision to drop a €446,000 defamation claim against him as a victory for justice and local press freedom.

The withdrawal brings to an end a four-year legal saga over a political satire cartoon by Mr Shapiro, who signs himself as “Zapiro”, which depicted the South African president raping a “Lady Justice” character with the help of some senior African National Congress (ANC) colleagues.

Mr Zuma is seen hovering over Lady Justice and undoing his belt, while his ANC colleagues pin her down saying: “Go for it boss.”

Around that time, Mr Zuma was acquitted of rape and knee-deep in a long-running legal battle relating to corruption and bribery charges linked to a government arms deal. The cartoon was drawing on these events for its inspiration, according to Mr Shapiro.

Mr Zuma was cleared of the rape charge in 2006 and the corruption charges were withdrawn shortly before he became South African president in 2009.

The president’s legal team lodged a five million rand damages claim against Mr Shapiro and the Sunday Times newspaper, which was first to publish the cartoon in December 2008, amid claims it impaired his personal dignity.

But last week signs surfaced that South Africa’s first citizen may not be so keen to go to the high court to have his case heard.

Out of the blue, Mr Zuma reduced his damages amount to R100,000 (€8,920), and dropped his claim that the cartoon harmed his dignity. However, he maintained it harmed his reputation and, as a result, he still wanted an unconditional apology.

Then, on Sunday, a few days after his initial climbdown, the presidency released a statement saying the claim had been withdrawn to avoid setting a legal precedent, and that the presidency had more pressing issues.

However, analysts have speculated that the main reason behind Mr Zuma’s decision to withdraw may be the forthcoming ANC elective conference in December.

Mr Zuma is tipped to retain the party’s top job despite a number of setbacks in recent months, but a lengthy defamation case in which his old legal woes were dragged back into the public domain could harm him.

Mr Shapiro told the Sunday Times the president’s decision to withdraw the claim was a victory, but he added he also had “mixed feelings” because he believed he would have won the case “hands down”.

Yesterday, he added in another interview: “Most certainly I will be drawing ‘Lady Justice’ and ‘Press Freedom’ . . . Maybe having a drink together . . . a glass of champagne. I see it as a victory for both.”