Sign up for weekly updates

South African president drops defamation suit over rape cartoon

(WAN-IFRA/IFEX) - The following is a post from WAN-IFRA's Editor's Weblog, by Emma Knight:

South African President Jacob Zuma has withdrawn a four year-old defamation claim against Avusa Media, publisher of the Sunday Times newspaper, over a 2008 depiction by cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (known by the pen name "Zapiro") of Zuma dropping his pants as he prepares to rape a female personification of the justice system.

The case was due to be heard in the South Gauteng High Court today. Instead, Zuma announced his decision to drop the claim in a statement on Saturday, citing a desire "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."

Initially, Zuma had claimed damages totaling 5 million rand ($580,000)-- 4 million from Avusa Media for defamation, as well as 1 million from the former editor of the Sunday Times Mondli Makhanya for insulting the President's dignity. Last week, Zuma's lawyers reduced the claim to 100,000 rand ($11,500) and an apology. Under the new settlement, the President has dropped all charges, and will pay 50 percent of the defendants' legal costs.

The provocative cartoon titled "The Rape of Lady Justice" appeared in the Sunday Times in September 2008, while Zuma, who had already assumed leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), but had not yet been elected president, was fighting corruption charges. Two years earlier, the polygamist and father of over 20 children had been acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend.

According to the BBC, Zuma had stated during the 2006 rape trial that, "he had showered after unprotected sex with the woman to guard against possible infection." As a result, Zapiro began drawing Zuma with a showerhead protruding from his cranium. The showerhead– translated into a hand gesture– has become a symbol of the opposition to Zuma's leadership.

"The Rape of Lady Justice" showed a shower-head-topped Zuma with his belt buckle undone, leering at a blindfolded, pinned down woman wearing a sash reading 'Justice System.' The four men restraining the victim are a later-expelled leader of the ANC Youth League, and the general secretaries of the South African Trade Union, the Communist Party, and the ANC. A speech bubble rising from the latter reads: "Go for it, boss!"

The government's communiqué withdrawing the defamation claim stated that that the Sunday Times' publication of the cartoon reflected a "set of deeply ingrained prejudices…about African males and sexual mores."

"It's a great victory for freedom of expression and for satire and for comment," Shapiro said in a telephone call from Cape Town, according to the Times Live. He also, however, called it a "cheap trick" for Zuma to claim to be a defender of free speech after "pursuing someone for four years," and to paint him as "racist" even while dropping the charges.

Moreover, Shapiro has allegedly questioned whether the President's motives for withdrawing the case were indeed "in the interest of the nation," given that Zuma faces re-election as leader of the ANC in December. He suggested that perhaps the President was more interested in avoiding trial than defending free speech, particularly in light of the several other defamation cases he has pending against satirists and journalists (including two against Shapiro himself for showerhead cartoons published by Independent Newspapers several years ago).

It is not the first time that Zuma has been drawn with his pants down. In May, Editors Weblog reported that the President had called for a boycott against Sunday newspaper City Press, which his government referred to as "a paragon of immorality," after it ran an image by artist Brett Murray depicting Zuma with his genitalia exposed. (Read follow-up here.)

In yesterday's Sunday Times, a new Zapiro cartoon showed a shower-clad Zuma splayed on his back beside a broken baseball bat reading "R5 million law suit." Pinning one of the President's arms down is a blindfolded Lady Justice, and restricting the other is Shapiro himself, proffering the earlier cartoon, and asking, "Are we done here?"

While the President steered clear of the justice system this time around, the satirist's answer to his own question appears to be "not quite." Shapiro has claimed that he would "most certainly" continue to draw Lady Justice, perhaps sharing a glass of champagne with 'Press Freedom.'

"I see it as a victory for both," he said

What other IFEX members are saying

Latest Tweet:

In #Beirut #Lebanon on Wednesday February 27? Join @SMEX for the launch of #Muhal, an open database that documents…

Get more stories like this

Sign up for our newsletters and get the most important free expression news delivered to your inbox.