President Zuma has withdrawn his claim for damages against a Zapiro cartoon published in the Sunday Times and agreed to pay half of its legal costs.
In the cartoon, Zuma, who was acquitted of a rape charge in 2006, was shown loosening his trousers while since expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe hold Lady Justice down, saying: "Go for it, boss."
"President Zuma did the right thing in withdrawing the case. This bodes very well for media freedom," Dario Milo, who represented the Sunday Times, told the paper.
"It is to be hoped that he swiftly withdraws his other 12 live cases against the media. This will send out an important signal that the president respects the right of the media to criticise his conduct."
The withdrawal ends a four-year saga that began in 2008 when Zuma sued for R4-million in damages to his reputation and R1 million for injury to his dignity.
Recently Zuma had reduced his claims against cartoonist Zapiro from R5-million to R100 000 with an apology.
The case was to be heard in the high court on Monday.
Zuma started proceedings in December 2010 against Avusa, the cartoonist Jonathan "Zapiro" Shapiro and former Sunday Times editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya in a summons issued in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.
With Mangaung around the corner, President Zuma's legal team seem to be doing all they can to avoid a damaging legal showdown with cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro over his Lady Justice rape cartoon.
The dramatic changes to the claim come two years after various delays on the part of Zuma's lawyers.
"It was due to start on Thursday and that date has been in place since February. But they've used the same tactic that they've used in other cases, where they sue and then they make all kinds of adjustments and changes – it was clear that they didn't want to go to court ahead of Mangaung," Shapiro told the M&G. "But we dug our heels in and said we had to get into court and we're confident of our case."
There just hasn't seemed to be a good time for the president to take on Shapiro, or Zapiro, as his pen name goes.
With Zuma being pitted against his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe ahead of the ANC's elective conference in December, he now faces a similarly sensitive period where he would want to avoid a court appearance and the negative attention it might attract.
Shapiro told the Sunday Times that he had "mixed feelings" about the withdrawal as he believed he would have won the court case "hands down".
"This is a vindication of what I was saying in the cartoon and it's a vindication of the Sunday Times for publishing it," Shapiro said. –
Shapiro told the M&G he thought it was hilarious and ironic that Malema was now invoking the iconic "showerhead" motif that has dogged Zuma in his cartoons.
While Malema was a fierce Zuma supporter at the time of the cartoon he has since led the charge against him in a series of damaging public appearances. "The morning when I opened the paper and saw a huge photo of Malema making the shower using his hands – my jaw dropped and I laughed out loud," said Shapiro. "And it's very ironic – he, of course, is one of the people in this drawing."
ANC members in the anti-Zuma camp have begun using the showerhead sign during gatherings as a signal of their lack of support for Zuma. Party members are otherwise constrained from verbalising their preferences.
"Some of the people in the drawing have split quite radically apart since then," said Shapiro. "Malema of course, but even Vavi who is someone I respect in some ways. I put him in there reluctantly, but he had to be there as he had said some heavy things in support of the dropping of corruption charges against Zuma. Since then he has criticised Zuma."
But while Vavi was "very, very upset" at his inclusion in the cartoon, Shapiro said they have since had some good interactions. "We've spoken a number of times."
Zuma was recently the subject of another fracas involving freedom of speech and the use of his image.
The Spear, painted by Cape Town-based artist Brett Murray, depicted the president with his genitals exposed caused outrage, with ruling party supporters marching to have the painting removed.
In June 2010 the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) found that the cartoon did not constitute hate speech, unfair discrimination or a violation of any human right enshrined in the Constitution, the M&G then reported.
Dismissing the complaint by the Young Communist League and its national secretary Buti Manamela, the commission found that the cartoon expressed a level of free, open, robust and even unrestrained criticism of politicians by a journalist and had stimulated valuable political debate.
"Although the SAHRC finds the cartoon and the words used in relation thereto probably offensive and distasteful, same falls short of and does not constitute hate speech, unfair discrimination under Promotion of Equality and the Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act or a violation of any fundamental human right contained in the Constitution," the commission's finding reads.
Zapiro has previously pointed out that he believed Zuma and the others depicted in the cartoon had threatened the justice system.
He said Malema had threatened to kill for Zuma if the case relating to his corruption charges went ahead.
Vavi, depicted in the cartoon, had echoed Malema's pledge and Mantashe said there would be anarchy if the case continued. Judges of the Constitutional Court were also called "counter-revolutionary".
Shapiro said at the time he felt that the "very real intimidation of the judiciary and of individual judges" justified his use of the metaphor.
Two years later, Shapiro said he was keen to test these issues in a court of law. "It already has passed muster at the human rights commission. I was very confident, made my submissions, and they duly declared that it was in the realm of free speech and could not be called hate speech. But of course a court is a different situation but I think it's important at a time when freedom of expression is under threat that one can make very strong and sometimes harsh statements in cartoons. These should be protected by the Constitution."
Zuma's legal team had no intention of letting him go into the witness box in his face-off against the award-winning cartoonist.
The team led by attorney Yusuf Dockrat, includes advocate Nazeer Cassim SC, who acted for Zuma in the Brett Murray The Spear case.
Zuma had been advised to go for R5-million in his claim against Avusa Media, former Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya and Shapiro. The huge claim was never about the money but about a sense of morality, they said.
Zuma was advised to drop his claim to R100 000 and donate the money to charity if he wins. They also advised him not to get into the witness box. They would see how the case played out, but they would not want him to go through the indignity of being grilled on the stand.
The Lady Justice cartoon caused one of the biggest furores South Africa has ever seen over a cartoon. Some politicians were infuriated that the cartoon appeared to invoke memories of Zuma's rape trial in 2005, at which he was acquitted of the allegations against him. People went on public platforms to intimidate Shapiro and incite crowds against him. "But I did not let them put me off my stride," said Shapiro. "Caving in is the worst thing to do. I don't want to cave in to political bullying or thuggery."
Before he became president and shortly after the cartoon appeared, Zuma sent a letter of demand asking for R7-million in damages.
Later in 2010, as president, he launched a court action, which Shapiro first heard about when a sheriff arrived on his doorstep in Cape Town with a demand for R5-million. At the time, the Sunday Times's legal team described the sums being sought by the president as "exorbitant amounts with the ulterior purpose of intimidating the media, the Sunday Times and Shapiro".
Zuma claimed in his court papers that the intention behind the publication of the cartoon had been for the cartoon to damage his reputation and dignity.
The newspaper's legal team stated in its plea that it saw things differently. "The cartoon was comment made honestly and in good faith on matters of public interest, namely the public conduct and statements of the plaintiff, the ANC, the ANC Youth League, the SACP [South African Communist Party] and Cosatu in their efforts to undermine the plaintiff's prosecution on serious criminal charges."
Shapiro's and Sunday Times attorney Milo said the case required the court to consider the newspaper's and Zapiro's defence of "honest comment and truth regarding the cartoon, which alleged an abuse of the justice system in 2008".
In Zuma's court papers it is claimed that the cartoon was intended to show readers that the president was "in the process of abusing the justice system in as vile, degrading and violent a way as the raping of a woman".
It was also further intended to mean that the president "enthusiastically utilises" the ANC Youth League, the ANC itself, the SACP and Cosatu "to enable him to abuse the justice system".
The court papers refer to "the depiction of the plaintiff standing close to the feet of the figure of a lady, symbolising the justice system by means of a sash around her upper body reading Justice System, clearly in great distress and forcibly held down on her back by depictions of Julius Malema in a shirt marked ANCYL, Gwede Mantashe in a shirt marked ANC and a jacket, Blade Nzimande with a cap marked SACP and Zwelinzima Vavi with a cap marked Cosatu, with the depiction of Mr Mantashe saying 'Go for it, Boss!'"
The meaning could also be found in how the president was portrayed, Zuma's court papers state.
"The depiction of the president holding the belt of his trousers, which are already open in the front and hanging so low that the upper part of his naked buttocks is revealed, and gazing down at the lady figure with parted lips and bared teeth."
In their defence, Avusa, Makhanya and Shapiro admit that the cartoon depicted the president about to rape Lady Justice, who was in distress and forcibly held down by depictions of the other men.
"The defendants admit that the cartoon was defamatory of the plaintiff in that it meant that he, the ANC, the ANC Youth League, the SACP and Cosatu were prepared to abuse the justice system and have their way with it," they stated in their plea. However, if the cartoon made statements of fact, they were "true or substantially true" and their publication was in the public interest.
"The cartoon was comment made honestly and in good faith on matters of public interest, namely the public conduct and statements of the plaintiff, the ANC, the ANC Youth League, the SACP and Cosatu in their efforts to undermine the plaintiff's prosecution on serious criminal charges," the plea states.
Shapiro is still being sued by Zuma for two other cartoons, published by Independent Newspapers around the time of his rape trial seven years ago.
Independent Newspapers and Shapiro were originally sued for R15-million for three cartoons – Zuma being sworn in in court, the moral degeneration handbook and the first cartoon in which Shapiro ever depicted Zuma with a shower attached to his head.
But he later decided to drop the claim against the maiden shower-head cartoon and the claim was reduced to R10-million.
After that Zuma said through his lawyers that the claim might be reduced to R2-million as his reputation was obviously still intact because he became president of the ANC after Polokwane.
"I was informed by my lawyer this week that the amount was never formally reduced," said Shapiro, who had been caught by surprise. "His claim against me in that case still stands at R10-million."