Zapiro: We’re confident of our case with Zuma

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.

Zuma has entirely dropped his R1-million claim that the cartoon harmed his dignity, and reduced the claim of defamation from R4-million to R100 000, with an unconditional apology, media lawyer Dario Milo told the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday

The case will now go ahead on Monday. 

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."

Zuma first brought a claim against Shapiro for the cartoon in December 2010 – about two years after its publication in the Sunday Times on September 7 2008. 

There just hasn't seemed to be a good time for the president to take on Shapiro, or Zapiro, as his pen name goes. 

In 2009 it was election season, and a court appearance to explain how the cartoon had harmed his dignity and reputation would have caused a media circus akin to his 2006 rape trial, where the damaging statements he made in the dock about HIV/Aids and women continue to haunt him. 

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. 

In the cartoon, Zuma, who was acquitted of the 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 held Lady Justice down, saying: "Go for it, boss." It was in reference to corruption charges being dropped against the controversial leader.

Shapiro said 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.

Milo said Monday's case was important. "It tests the balance between satire and freedom of speech … It's quite a ground-breaking and unprecedented case."

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."

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