The South Gauteng High Court on Tuesday, June 18 rejected the EFF’s application to appeal a judgment finding it had defamed former finance minister Trevor Manuel and ordering the party to pay R500,000 in damages.
Judge Elias Matojane said an appeal from the EFF lacked the prospect of success and its court application failed to address the key issues in the case.
In March 2019 Manuel took the EFF, its leader, Julius Malema, and spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi to court on allegations of defamation after the party had accused him of corruption and nepotism when he led the selection panel to appoint a new SARS boss.
The High Court in May found there was no substance to the party’s claim that Manuel was related to and had business ties with Edward Kieswetter, who was eventually appointed as SARS commissioner.
The EFF, Malema and Ndlozi were ordered to remove the statement from all media platforms, issue a retraction and apology and pay Manuel R500,000.
While the panel made recommendations on who should be appointed to lead SARS, it did not make the final decision. Manuel recused himself from Kieswetter’s interview as he was finance minister while Kieswetter was SARS deputy commissioner.
In his judgment dismissing the appeal application, Matojane picked apart the EFF’s claims that the court had failed to take into account the context of the statement, should have viewed it as political speech, and set an exorbitant amount in damages.
“The sting of the charge that Mr Manuel and Mr Kieswetter were relatives, close business associates and companions, which resulted in an interview process that was corrupt, nepotistic and secretive must be proved,” said Matojane.
“Instead of proving the sting of the charge, the respondents seem to argue a different case which has nothing to do with a defamation claim.”
The ruling said the EFF admitted in its court papers that the allegations were false.
Parts of the ruling are scathing. On the EFF’s claim that publishing the allegations were reasonable and that the court did not hear evidence on what steps the EFF took to verify the claims, Matojane said the grounds of appeal were “clearly not thought through”.
“Based on the evidence before this court, the respondents did not attempt to verify the truth of the allegation, but simply accepted everything their ‘confidential source’ stated at face value, and took no steps to corroborate the supposed allegations,” said the judge.
The EFF argued that the allegations against Manuel were political and should be exempt from defamation claims.
“The absolute defence of political speech alleged by the respondents has no basis in law, and the respondents have made these bald averments without referring to any authority,” said Matojane.
He also dismissed the claim that because the EFF says outlandish things a reasonable person would not take the comments seriously nor would Manuel be harmed.
“The respondents make an astonishing submission that a reasonable reader of ordinary intelligence would be used to the kind of language by the respondents as being consistent with ‘their colourful rhetoric style’. The publication of defamatory and false statements, even in colourful rhetoric style, is unlawful,” the judgment continued.
Regarding the R500,000 the EFF was ordered to pay, Matojane said damages in defamation cases are determined on a case-by-case basis. He said the seriousness of the defamatory statement, the breadth and distribution of publication, and Malema’s refusal to apologise, and defence and reiteration of the comments justified the amount.
Manuel, who chairs Old Mutual, has said he will donate the money to charity.
EFF secretary general Godrich Gardee told Talk Radio 702 the party would petition the Supreme Court of Appeal directly to take the defamation ruling on appeal.
“We have received the judgment and we have taken a decision that we are going to petition the Supreme Court of Appeal for leave to appeal the judgment,” said Gardee.
“We are of the view that another higher court may reach a different determination on the issues before it in that we hold a view that the lower court has erred in the application of the law to the facts and accordingly there is a prospect of success in the matter.” DM