President Jacob Zuma has dropped all outstanding defamation cases against the media for cartoons and articles he considered offensive.
"The president feels that measured against the broader nation[al] interest and challenges which the country is faced with, his personal sentiments, however aggrieved he may feel, must give way," said presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj in a statement on Friday.
The decision may also have been influenced by the fact that Zuma missed a deadline last Thursday for legal documents to be submitted relating to six of his claims against media groups and individuals associated with them.
He has initiated 14 claims against the media between 2006-2010, amounting to around R60-million. They included a R5-million action against Jonathan Shapiro over his Zapiro cartoon showing Zuma loosening his trousers while "Lady Justice" is being pinned down by his colleagues, which was dropped in October.
Earlier this year, two claims against Rapport and one against the Sunday Sun were also dropped and Zuma was ordered to pay legal costs. Other claims were against publications including the Star and the Citizen.
Maharaj said the president considered some of the articles brought his name or that of his office into disrepute, and in some instances "sought to cast African males in a particularly negative light with bigoted and racist overtones and innuendo".
The president was mindful that some of the litigation started before he assumed office, and the decision to drop it was "informed by the broader agenda of reconciliation and nation building", he added.
The president intended redressing prejudice and inequality through government-led programmes and forging better working relationships with like-minded interest groups.
May 23 was the last day for Zuma to hand over documents relating to his six claims against the media.
"If the deadline is missed today [May 23], we will apply for a court order against President Zuma to hand over the documents. If he misses the deadline again, we will ask that the claims be dropped," said Dario Milo – appearing for Independent Newspapers, Avusa and the Citizen – last Thursday.
According to News24 at the time, media lawyers said they doubted whether Zuma was really serious about the claims and said they were possibly being used as an intimidation tactic to keep the media in check.
"Milo said the ease with which claims were instituted between 2006 and 2010 but then neglected could point to Zuma never really being serious about them in the first place," added News24.