Defamation claims have just become a lot more expensive, as former ANC leader Mathews Phosa sues publisher Jacana Media for R20 million. The claim is significantly greater than the amounts the courts have granted complainants in recent years, the highest being R500 000.
Phosa filed the civil action in August against both the publisher and journalist Rehana Rossouw, who had written a book titled Predator Politics: Mabuza, Fred Daniel and the Great Land Scam.
Phosa stated in court papers that the claim was for damages and compensation from the defendants for publishing “defamatory and false utterances” about him unlawfully and intentionally. “The amount for damages is claimed due to defamation and the impairment and harm caused to the plaintiff’s dignity and reputation,” said Phosa’s lawyers.
Interestingly, the book was intended to expose large-scale corruption allegedly orchestrated by Phosa’s political nemesis in the ANC in Mpumalanga, Deputy President David Mabuza, during the latter’s tenure in the provincial government from the early 2000s.
Phosa appears to be going all out to defend his reputation, as he is a possible contender for the ANC presidency at the party’s conference in December.
Last week, Phosa, who is an admitted attorney, appeared as a witness in the Johannesburg Magistrates’ Court concerning a separate criminal matter in which he had laid perjury charges against businessperson Lungani Kunene, whose claims under oath in court papers “falsely” suggested that Phosa was a “mafioso”.
In the defamation case, Jacana and Rossouw stated in their court papers that Phosa was “acting abusively and vexatiously by claiming an exorbitant amount of damages (40 times the maximum ever awarded) that he, as an officer of the court, knows – or ought reasonably to know – that this honourable court would never award”.
The defendants denied that they had “made any false or defamatory utterances about and towards Dr Phosa”, or that they had “infringed on or attacked his dignity and reputation”.
The defendants added that if the court found any statements in the book to be indeed defamatory of Phosa, they (Jacana Media and Rossouw) had nevertheless acted lawfully.
They stated: The statements were true or substantially true and concerned matters of public interest; they amounted to protected comments, in that they were comments or opinions concerning matters of public interest.
However, Phosa said that the book, which has been widely read locally and internationally, contained 17 claims that he disputed, including:
- Allegations that he defended the corruption in Mpumalanga during his stint as premier by saying it had been inherited from the apartheid government;
- Allegations that he supported investment management company Allan Gray in setting up companies to siphon government funding into the ANC for its election campaign in Mpumalanga;
- Claims that, in 1999, the ANC had dropped him as a premier candidate because of his unpopularity, and insinuations that he had resigned as premier of Mpumalanga due to the Dolphin Trust investment scandal;
- Allegations that his business dealings were under investigation by law enforcement agencies for potentially violating rules regarding the legality of profiting from political connections and tender scandals;
- Allegations that a murdered corruption whistleblower, James Nkambule, had had evidence that incriminated Phosa in acts of fraud, theft, bribery, tender-rigging, intimidation and tampering with official documents;
- Insinuations that he had murdered political opponents; and
- Allegations that he had made use of irregularly approved funds from the provincial Treasury to make upgrades to his private residence, amounting to R835 000 during his tenure as premier of Mpumalanga.
Phosa claimed that Jacana had refused to tender an apology or withdraw the book.
He said: “Taking into account what has been submitted above, it has been proved that the publication is of a defamatory, injurious and hurtful nature and that the statements are to be found as untrue and that it is not reasonable in a democratic society [for them] to be published and widely circulated.” He therefore requested “an order that the defendants, jointly and severally, the one paying the other to be absolved, pay to [him] the sum of R20 000 000 (twenty million rand) as damages in respect of the defamation”.