Jonathan Shapiro. Picture: THE TIMES
Jonathan Shapiro. Picture: THE TIMES

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s decision to withdraw his defamation case against cartoonist Jonathan "Zapiro" Shapiro has been warmly welcomed by supporters of media freedom. The cartoon depicted Lady Justice held down by African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, union leader Zwelinzima Vavi and then ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema as Mr Zuma unbuckled his belt.

It was strongly condemned by the ANC and its alliance partners. Mr Zuma then sued, claiming his dignity had been hurt, and that it was defamatory. But after a lengthy period, he dropped the dignity claim. On Friday he dropped the entire suit. However, it appears this was a simple political calculation rather than any change of heart towards Zapiro or media freedom in general.

Mr Zuma has made much of his claims to dignity over the last several years. Thus it could have been expected that he would continue with this case to the bitter end, if just to make the claim that he had a natural right to dignity.

It also appeared that this was a useful political tool, as the cartoon could have been claimed to be proof that he was being abused by a rich, generally white portion of society.

However, his final calculation shows he stood to lose far more than he would have gained.

If he had proceeded with his first claim, relating to his dignity, Mr Zuma would have had to testify from the witness box. As it is a subjective claim, he would have had to make the case that he felt his dignity had been abused. This would have opened him up to cross-examination from the paper’s advocate, Wim Trengove, who is well known for his skills in cross-examination.

However, even the second claim, that he had been defamed, would have allowed Zapiro to present evidence that Mr Zuma had deliberately abused the justice system, as depicted by Lady Justice in the original cartoon.

Webber Wentzel attorney Dario Milo, who represented both Zapiro and the Sunday Times in this case, has confirmed they would have brought evidence from both before the cartoon was published, such as comments made by ANC leaders, and from after it was printed. The court would have heard claims that the decision by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to drop corruption charges against Mr Zuma was politically motivated.

As a result of this, Mr Milo has confirmed, they had requested the "spy tapes", or transcripts of recordings between then Scorpions head Leonard McCarthy and former NPA head Bulelani Ngcuka. In 2009 these tapes were obtained by Mr Zuma’s attorney, Michael Hulley, through means which have never been explained. They were then used as evidence of a political conspiracy.

And Mr Zuma’s team has tried to block every chance these tapes will be made public. The Democratic Alliance has also had no success with its formal request for them, as part of its application for a judicial review of that NPA decision. This could have been the major factor in Mr Zuma’s decision to withdraw the action. Also, this case would have occupied the public imagination ahead of the ANC’s Mangaung conference.

But the length of time this suit has taken is evidence that this was an issue Mr Zuma wanted to pursue. He may have required some convincing to make the decision to withdraw.

• Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.