KZN MEC sues over media 'lie'

2008-03-03 00:00

KZN Finance and Economic Development MEC Dr Zweli Mkhize took the witness stand in the Pietermaritzburg High Court yesterday in a case in which he is suing Sunday newspaper City Press for R300 000 for defamation of character.

The newspaper is defending the action.

Mkhize alleged in evidence that the newspaper article in question was “a lie”, was defamatory, called his integrity into question and embarrassed him in front of people he works with, his family and the public at large.

“I am not a criminal,” Mkhize told Judge Jan Hugo.

He said the refusal of City Press to publish a retraction and apology raised concerns in his mind of a possible hidden agenda by the paper and that the publication was “deliberate”.

The case arises from the publication by City Press in March last year of allegations that initially surfaced in 2000 at the trial of six men charged with the assassination of expelled ANC Richmond leader Sifiso Nkabinde, in which self-confessed co-conspirator, Bruce Mhlongo testified that the killers were offered R200 000 for the murder by Mkhize (then MEC for health in the province).

Mhlongo admitted under cross examination in the trial that he had never spoken to Mkhize directly about the matter, that the allegation was hearsay, and may have been designed to encourage the murderers to carry out the job.

The City Press report last year related to an alleged plot to assassinate Mkhize uncovered by the National Intelligence Agency.

Mkhize complains City Press failed to contextualise the allegations and made no mention of Mhlongo’s concessions in court, despite these having been published at the time.

Cross examining Mkhize, advocate Dennis Kuny SC for City Press suggested to him the allegations were widely reported during two trials arising from Nkabinde’s assassination in 2000 and 2001; that he emerged from the case with a “clean image” and that in light of the reputation he enjoys no ordinary reader of the newspaper would believe the allegation was true. He said this was especially so in light of the fact that Mkhize was never charged and the allegation made by an accomplice “saving his own skin”.

He also suggested the newspaper’s purpose in repeating the allegation was “not sinister”, but intended to provide relevant background to the article and possible motive for the assassination plot.

Kuny suggested that Mkhize could have complained to the press ombudsman instead of going to court, but Mkhize said he regarded the matter as being so serious and prejudicial to him that he felt the only course open to him was to sue the newspaper in the high court.

“This is the only newspaper I have ever sued,” the MEC said.

Mkhize said he did not object to the earlier reports because the allegations were reported on in court and dealt with by the court. When the case ended he thought the allegations were “now dead”.

In response to a question by Judge Hugo whether he thought tensions that existed between the Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki camps within the ANC had anything to do with the article in question, Mkhize said; “I like to think not”.

Asked by the judge if he knew what became of investigations into the alleged plot to assassinate him last year, Mkhize said he has heard nothing more, but understood that police are still investigating.

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