South African President Jacob Zuma has dropped a four-year-old legal case claiming nearly $600,000 in damages from a cartoonist who depicted him poised to rape “Lady Justice”, his office said.
Britain’s Sunday Times, named as a defendant in the case, also said on Sunday it had reached agreement with Zuma’s lawyers for the suit and all claims to be ended.
“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,” Mac Maharaj, a presidential spokesman, said in a statement.
“It is the president’s view that a legal battle against individuals and institutions will be an unnecessary diversion,” the statement read.
It added that it still saw the cartoon as an affront to the dignity of the president.
“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. “
– Mac Maharaj, Zuma’s spokesman
Maharaj said Zuma’s decision to withdraw the lawsuit was informed by a series of 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.
Matters relating to dignity and the public standing of individuals cannot be mediated exclusively through the courts, his spokesman 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,” the spokesman said.
“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.”
Wastage of funds
The civil case had been due to start on Monday.
Under the settlement, Zuma will pay part of the legal costs of the defendants, his office said.
Zuma, facing re-election for leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at the end of the year, has been
criticised for pushing laws seen as trying to muzzle the media.
If the case went forward, it could have provided ammunition for foes in the party who say he wants to silence his critics
Zuma had been seeking $462,300 for defamation from Avusa media and an additional $115,000 from a former Sunday Times editor for publishing the 2008 cartoon.
Ray Hartley, the current editor, said in the paper: “A lot of time and taxpayer money has been wasted on an ill-considered effort to curtail free expression.”
The cartoon from award-winning Jonathan Shapiro, better known by his pen name “Zapiro”, shows Zuma’s supporters holding down Lady Justice while Zuma stands over the woman with his trousers unzipped.
It was published when Zuma was facing corruption charges that could have blocked his path to the presidency.
A court in 2006 acquitted Zuma of raping an HIV-positive family friend in a case that garnered widespread public interest
in a country with one of the world’s highest recorded rates of sexual violence.
Zuma’s ANC took a Johannesburg gallery to court and led massive street rallies earlier this year to protest a painting
called “The Spear” that portrayed Zuma exposed himself.
The ANC, which has ruled since apartheid ended in 1994, called the image racist and intended to tarnish Zuma’s dignity.
Zuma’s critics say the image was reflective of his colourful personal life.
A Zulu polygamist with four wives and more than 20 children, he is reported to have had extra-marital affairs.