Courts are often not well placed to act as mediators in highly charged political disputes. The ANC’s attempt to use the court to deal with the DA’s claim that the Public Protector’s Report “showed that Zuma stole your money to build his R246 home” is a case in point.
Election campaigns tend to get extremely heated and the rhetoric overblown. Leaders of political parties do not only make wild promises they know they can never keep (we all know there won’t be 6 million jobs – or even job opportunities – after the election), they also hurl insults and accusations at their opponents that might ring true for some voters but – from a legal perspective – are difficult or impossible to prove.
When ANC politicians claim that the DA is a racist party, that it does not care about the poor or that it will bring back Apartheid if elected, we all know that these claims are part of the ANC’s election rhetoric. Some voters will take it seriously and some will not. The best way the DA could counter such claims is to demonstrate, through their words and action, that the claims are untrue.
Similarly, when the DA claims that President Jacob Zuma has stolen taxpayers’ money, that ANC leaders are all corrupt or that the ANC will undermine the Constitution, we all know that this is part of the DA’s election rhetoric. Some voters will believe the claims and some will not. Surely the best way for the ANC to counter such claims would be to show, through words and deeds, that the claims are untrue.
The ANC chose not to follow this route to challenge the accuracy of the SMS sent by the DA that the Public Protector Report shows that President Zuma has stolen taxpayers’ money. Perhaps because it thought it would not be able to win the argument or because it feared that the damage done to the ANC brand by the Nkandla scandal could not be repaired through reasoned debate and argument alone, it approached the court to try and stop the DA from making these claims.
The ANC relied on section 89(2)(c) of the Electoral Act which prohibits any person from publishing any false information with the intention of influencing the conduct or outcome of an election and on item 9(1)(ii)(b) of the Electoral Code which prohibits any registered party or candidate from publishing false or defamatory allegations in connection with an election in respect of a candidate or that candidate’s representatives.
If a court were to interpret these provisions strictly, it would have a drastic effect on what could and could not be said during an election campaign. It would then become illegal to make accusations about a political party or its candidates unless it could easily be shown that the accusations are true.
A large amount of statements made by ANC politicians about opposition parties and quite a number of statements made by opposition parties about the ANC would immediately be rendered illegal during an election campaign.
It will always be very difficult, if not impossible, to show that many of the accusations made during an election campaign are indeed true. A strict interpretation of the Electoral Act would therefore impose a drastic limit on what could be said during an election campaign and would impoverish political debate and contestation.
As the distinction between facts and opinion based on those facts can be very difficult to maintain, politicians would have to curb their exuberance when making claims about opposition parties and their candidates.
As a result, those taking part in the election campaign would be unable to raise many critical questions about their opponents and voters would be deprived of opinions about political parties and their candidates that may otherwise have played a pivotal role in their decision who to vote for.
A narrow, literal, interpretation would therefore leave the relevant sections of the Electoral Act open to constitutional challenge.
It may be for this reason that the High Court reinterpreted the relevant sections of the Electoral Act in line with section 39(2) of the Constitution. This section requires a court when interpreting any legislation to “promote the spirit, purport and objects of the Bill of Rights”.
If words in legislation are reasonably capable of an interpretation in line with the provisions of the Bill of Rights, a court must give those words the constitutionally valid meaning.
The court thus rejected the argument, advanced on behalf of the ANC, that section 89(2) created strict liability and prohibited false statements even where those who made them believed them to be correct.
Instead it interpreted the section in the light of the right to freedom of expression and in the light of section 1 of the Constitution, which states, inter alia, that ours is a state based on the values of a “multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness”.
The judgment thus, somewhat controversially, introduced the principles developed in law of defamation regarding fair comment when interpreting the relevant provisions in the Electoral Act.
In effect, the court found that you would not be in breach of the Electoral Act every time you make what turns out to be a false statement about a candidate or political party. You will only be in breach of the Act if your statement is false and does not amount to “fair comment”.
The court noted that in the law of defamation regard must be had to who is being targeted. Politicians and public figures must not be too thin-skinned about comments made about them. What may be defamatory of a private person may not necessarily be defamatory of a politician or a judge. This is so because right-thinking people will probably not likely greatly be influenced in their esteem of a politician by derogatory statements made about him or her.
Interpreted in the light of the law of defamation, a comment based on facts need not commend itself to the court, nor need it be impartial and well-balanced. Fair comment requires only that the view must – objectively speaking – be an honest and genuine expression of opinion about a set of facts and must not disclose malice.
The idea is that divergent views should be aired in public and subjected to debate and scrutiny because it is through such debate that bad ideas will be exposed and shown to be wrong-headed. Untrammeled debate enhances truth-finding. If the relevant sections of the Electoral Act were interpreted too strictly, it would make untrammeled debate very difficult, if not impossible.
Given this expansive interpretation of the relevant provisions of the Electoral Act, the court found that the comments made by the DA in its SMS constituted fair comment.
This was so because the DA SMS did not state as fact that the Public Protector Report found that President Jacob Zuma stole money. Instead the SMS claimed that the Report “show[ed]” that he did so.
In this regard the court noted that the Public Protector’s Report found that government created a license to loot situation during the Nkandla construction. It also noted that the president was aware of the upgrades but never raised any concerns as to the scale and cost of the upgrade, that he thus tacitly accepted the upgrades and that he improperly benefited in the process.
The court thus found that the SMS expressed a conclusion which could be fairly reached by a person reading the report.
Although the judgment wisely attempted to narrow the scope of section 89(2)(c) of the Electoral Act and item 9(1)(ii)(b) of the Electoral Code in order to preserve a space in which robust free and fair campaigning could occur, another court may well find that the wording of the Electoral Act could not reasonably be interpreted in the way the court interpreted it.
However, I would guess that if another court declined to follow the reasoning of the High Court, and instead interpreted the relevant sections to prohibit all claims made about a political party or its candidates that cannot be shown to be true, it would render these sections of the Electoral Act unconstitutional for breaching the right to freedom of expression.
There is therefore a possibility that an appeal of the judgment by the ANC may be successful. If it is successful, then it would leave the relevant sections open to constitutional attack.
It may therefore well be that after a lengthy legal battle, more or less the same outcome reached by the High Court is reached by another court – but based on different grounds, namely that the sections invoked by the ANC are unconstitutional. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.