The taxpayer is picking up the tab for the defamation case that suspended police chief Bheki Cele has launched against the Sowetan newspaper. Cele took legal aim at the Avusa title in 2008 after it published a manipulated “satirical” photograph of him in July 2007. But the case was stood down because the national police commissioner was too busy to give evidence — a situation that has obviously changed following his suspension.
“The case you are talking about happened when General Bheki Cele was still the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for transport, community safety and liaison,” said the transport department’s media spokesperson, Kwanele Ncalane.
He confirmed that the department, which has since split from safety and liaison, would settle the invoice from Strauss Daly Attorneys, Cele’s lawyers. This was despite not knowing how much the legal action would cost. “Remember, that defamation case is as a result of a cartoon in a newspaper because of utterances he made as an MEC for transport, community safety and liaison in KwaZulu-Natal,” Ncalane said.
“That is why the department is also implicated in the case and its understanding is that if there is any ruling by the court to pay back any monies from the defamation case, it will come back to government coffers.
“We can’t predict the cost and we can’t be sure how much is going to be accumulated by this case, so we will have to see what we will do.”
Asked what would happen if the bill ran into millions, Ncalane said: “We will discuss it with General Cele, but we are hoping we will be able to handle the matter along the way and with the provincial government.”
Ncalane said the provincial government believed that the issue was “a matter of principle”.
Cele said he would not speak to the press about the matter until the court had wrapped up proceedings.
“The matter is in court, ma’am, so I am not going to make any comment,” Cele told this journalist, who then told the suspended police chief that the matter of the legal invoice had nothing to do with the court process.
An irritated-sounding Cele replied: “I am not going to comment on anything related to that.”
Pamela Stein of Webber Wentzel, acting for the Sowetan, said her client was defending the matter because the case could set an important precedent that might affect press freedom.
“As a politician, Cele is fair game for satire on comments that he makes in the line of duty. He is suing on the basis of the depiction of him on the front page, in which his face, head and hat were superimposed on to what is a typical sheriff image from one of those wild west-type movies.
“We [the Sowetan] say it is a satirical portrayal of his hard stance on law and order and ‘shoot to kill’ comments.”
Cele took grave exception to the manipulated photograph by the Sowetan, even though a plethora of other press cartoons, including some from cartoonist Zapiro, parodied his alleged “shoot to kill” command at the time.
Stein said the defamation case extended to a complaint by Cele that the Sowetan linked the killing of criminal suspects to Cele’s statement.
The case resumes in the South Gauteng High Court on Friday and will be followed by arguments. It is expected that a judgment will be delivered in a few months.
Cele’s legal bill will no doubt arrive at the financial department of KwaZulu-Natal’s transport offices way before then.
Cele was suspended with full pay after an investigation by the public protector implicated him in two corrupt lease deals worth R1.6-billion.
The general and his procurement practices were supposed to be the subject of a public hearing due to begin on February 13, but details of this inquiry had not yet been made available to the M&G at the time of going to press.