Suing Zapiro

2010-12-23 00:00

LET us start with the indisputable. As with all citizens, President Jacob Zuma has a right to approach the courts when he believes that any of his rights have been violated.

With that out of the way, let us get to the heart of the matter. To approach a court about a defamation suit two years after the fact, as Zuma has done with cartoonist Zapiro, and at a time when his political star is ascending suggests that he has been badly advised or that he is exposing a vindictive streak that he has kept in check for most of his public life.

Just this week, it was revealed that Zuma’s approval ratings showed that 49% of people polled believe he is doing a great job. This had been as low as 43% in February.

Now he wants to take a case of defamation of character to court. Zuma has been for some a figure of ridicule. Some of it has been about political point scoring. In other cases, he has been a victim of cultural chauvinism.

In other cases, such as the news that he had fathered a child with a woman who was not one of his four wives or fiancée, the criticism of his lapses in judgment was well deserved.

Zuma has had to grovel and accept that the criticism from within and outside the party is legitimate. In other words, Zuma has had to admit that he has, on occasion, defamed the Office of the President.

The cartoon for which he now has taken Zapiro to court reopens a door Zuma would do better to keep shut. His action will mean that the controversial manner in which corruption charges against him were dropped will have to be revisited.

Zuma must accept, too, that he might have to make himself available for cross-examination during which his opponents will attempt to show that the president’s reputation is not exactly stellar. The courts are not political press conferences where one can get away with a snide remark that means nothing.

In court, Zuma will be a witness just like any other. He will not be treated like a head of state.

Zapiro’s lawyers will go all the way to prove that Zapiro was entitled to hold the view he did and express it in the manner he did. They will also want to show that the president’s complaints about his reputation being hurt are exaggerated given what is already publicly known about Zuma.

The extraordinarily forgiving South African public might have put the fact that our president had unprotected sex with a woman he knew to be HIV-positive behind it and it might have made peace with the fact that he is not the first married man to have a child out of wedlock, but if he is to argue that his reputation has been injured, these facts will again come to life with lawyers trying to prove that Zuma has not needed anyone else to damage his dignity in the eyes of the proverbial ordinary person.

For free speech’s sake, I am hoping that the courts find in favour of Zapiro in this matter. I would hope for a judgment in favour of a Zuma-aligned cartoonist if he had drawn a caricature of the criminal justice system getting ready to rape Zuma with the media and opposition parties pressing the president down.

There can be no denying that there are many people who believe that Zuma attempted to rape the justice system, just as there are those who believe that he was a victim of rape by the system.

None of these two versions is necessarily truer than the other. Both are opinions which the holders are entitled to express given the personality and institutions involved.

Zuma’s advisers would do well to remind the president that being under media scrutiny and subjected to criticism, some of which touches a raw nerve, is an occupational hazard.

I hope for his own sake that Zuma is the opposite of Thabo Mbeki, who, we are told, believed himself to be more knowledgeable than everyone else in his court. And if it is so, that his advisers will warn him that even if he wins the case against Zapiro he might come out of the process worse off.

They must remind him that the government and the African National Congress can ill afford to have their leader shown to be a man of either questionable character or as one so thin-skinned that he would be willing to risk his administration’s perceived weak record on media freedom.

I hope Zuma’s aides will strongly urge the president to abandon this course of action because even for someone as wily as he is, there can be only one loser here. And that won’t be the irreverent Zapiro or a media that already believes that the ruling elite is curiously uncomfortable under its glare.

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