South African President Drops Defamation Suit Against Cartoonist

South African President Jacob Zuma announced last week that he was dropping his lawsuit against cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, known by the pen-name Zapiro. Zuma brought the suit for defamation against Zapiro, along with Sunday Times publisher Avusa Media and editor Mondli Makhanya, for Zapiro’s cartoon “Lady Justice,” which depicts Zuma set to rape Lady Justice. The president’s office released a statement saying that they dropped the charges in order to avoid setting a legal precedent that would have a chilling effect on free speech in South Africa.

Zuma filed the lawsuit in December 2008, after the Sunday Times published the cartoon. In the cartoon, Zuma stands with his pants undone while his political allies hold Lady Justice down and encourage him to “Go for it, Boss.” The cartoon was intended to represent Zuma’s abuse of the justice system. It also recalled the numerous sex scandals Zuma was involved in, including a 2006 trial for rape in which he was acquitted. Zuma felt that the image damaged his reputation and dignity.

The news that Zuma was dropping the lawsuit came days before the trial was scheduled to start. In addition to claiming that the act was intended to protect free speech, presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj also revealed that the Zuma would make a contribution toward the defendants’ legal fees.

Zuma’s critics, including Zapiro, do not believe that this is the real reason for the withdrawal of the suit. Zuma is up for re-election as the leader of the African National Congress (ANC) during the Manguang conference in December. Zuma’s critics believe that the lawsuit was dropped to avoid potential negative fallout from a court appearance. Zapiro commented: “When they found they had to go to court before Mangaung, they started backtracking like crazy. They first tried to postpone, then they backtracked, and then they folded, and they folded unconditionally.”

In the wake of the Lady Justice cartoon, Zuma has been repeatedly accused of using his authority and law-making influence to silence his critics. This year, he took the Goodman Gallery to court over their exhibition of Brett Murray’s painting The Spear. Based on a Leninist propaganda poster, it portrays Zuma with his genitals exposed. The ANC filed a lawsuit against the gallery, claiming defamation and a violation of Zuma’s right to dignity under South Africa’s constitution. The lawsuit was dropped when the gallery removed the painting after it was defaced. Three weeks ago, cartoonist Jeremy Nell was fired from the publication The New Age because of cartoons that were critical of Zuma and the ANC.

Zapiro shows no signs letting up on his political commentary. He recently released a cartoon collection, entitled But Will It Stand Up in Court?, which captures the year, especially the controversy surrounding The Spear. Speaking at the launch party, Zapiro relayed an anecdote speculating that he would likely run into trouble with the President in the future: “I thought of Calvin and Hobbs and me sitting outside the President’s office like the principal’s office. I’ll probably be there again and I’ll state my case again.”

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Soyini A. Hamit is a comic fan, a writer, and a 2015 J.D. candidate at Phoenix School of Law.