South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma dropped his defamation lawsuit against the country’s most prominent newspaper cartoonist, Zapiro, over the weekend [28 October].
The suit centred on a 2008 cartoon in the Sunday Times, the highest-circulation local weekend newspaper, depicting Zuma unzipping his pants to rape a woman held down by other politicians. Zapiro, whose real name is Jonathan Shapiro, identified the figure of the woman as symbolising “Lady Justice”.
At the time, the cartoon drew mixed responses, given racist attitudes towards black male sexuality and the cartoon’s use of rape as “metaphor” in a country with a high incidence of rape (studies show between 25 to 40 per cent of South African women will experience at least one sexual assault in their lifetime).
In 2006, Zuma was charged with and acquitted of rape.
His office explained this weekend’s unexpected withdrawal of the case as based on a concern over its chilling effect on freedom of expression. “The President (…) would like to avoid setting a legal precedent that may have the effect of limiting the public exercise of free speech,” Zuma’s spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, said in a statement.
Maharaj indicated that the president regarded the case as a “diversion”, as he wishes to provide leadership in the face of more urgent matters such as “the global economic meltdown and frustrations by the people on the ground”.
Zapiro celebrated with the cartoon below:
Christi van der Westhuizen is Index on Censorship’s new South African correspondent