Ubuntu wins in case of ridiculed teacher

2011-03-12 15:42

More ubuntu, less compensation. That, according to a legal expert, is the essence of a judgment by the Constitutional Court in a defamation case brought by a teacher against schoolboys who created a ­picture by superimposing his head on a photo of naked men.
The court found this week that the three boys had indeed defamed former Waterkloof Hoërskool deputy principal Louis Dey by distributing a ­picture of two naked bodybuilders, with Dey’s and the school’s principal’s faces pasted over those of the nude men.

The court, however, also opened the door for restorative justice to be imposed in place of monetary compensation, to heal injury to dignity in future defamation cases.

And that is why it knocked R20 000 off the R45 000 in compensation awarded to Dey by the High Court, replacing it with an order for the pranksters to apologise  “unconditionally” to the man they defamed.

“This is quite significant,” said Ann Skelton, director of the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria.

Many people were under the impression that the Constitutional Court judgment implied that teachers could now sue children, she said. This was, however, not the correct interpretation of the judgment.

“The court’s whole idea was that we shouldn’t be suing each other; that’s not the way to get your dignity back. The court said relationships should be healed and people reconciled.”

The outcome of the case seemed “harsh” and “narrow” for the pranksters, Skelton said, but “going forward we won’t see cases handled like this. This was very positive”.

The judgment pointed out that “things might have turned out differently” in the Dey case had South African law recognised the value of an apology and a retraction in restoring ­injured dignity.

The judges said they believed the time had come for Roman Dutch common law to recognise the value of this kind of ­restorative justice.

An apology, the judges said, recognised the human dignity of the plaintiff.

It acknowledged his inner ­humanity “in the true sense of ubuntu” and the “resultant ­harmony” would “serve the good of both the plaintiff and the defendant”.

Dey told City Press that he believed the judgment was a victory for teachers and discipline in schools.

“When you walk into a classroom”, he said, “it does not mean that you are any learner’s punching bag.”

He was convinced that taking the case to court had been the right thing to do and the support he received from the public confirmed this belief.

After the judgment was published, he received hundreds of messages of support from people across the country.

Dey praised his legal team, who accepted his case on a ­contingency basis because they supported the principles he stood for.

“We are not disappointed by the judgment of the Constitutional Court”, the pranksters said in a statement issued by Christiaan Gildenhuys, the ­father of one of the boys.

“We have succeeded in overturning the orders of the High Court and the Appeals Court by securing a more favourable damages and costs award,” the statement said.

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