DA Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip was awarded R250 000 in a defamation case against an old friend who turned on him and posted on Facebook that he had been inhumane to his former farmworkers.
The judgment was handed down in the Eastern Cape High Court in Makhanda on Tuesday.
Trollip had claimed R6m in damages as a result of the publication on social media, and later in print media, of claims by former DA member Knight Mali.
This included that the former mayor of the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality had underpaid farmworkers, robbed them of their cattle and exploited them.
Mali also claimed that Trollip was a “brutal” man who had committed atrocities against four farmworkers.
Trollip was standing as mayor of the municipality at the time the utterances started on May 30, 2016.
In the judgment in favour of Trollip, Acting Judge Silindile Toni said Mali’s comments were made on Facebook, and in a press statement, and were reported widely in the media, starting with The Herald.
The Herald first published the comments on July 11, 2016 and others eventually followed suit.
Trollip submitted that the claims were false and went about proving this.
He brought a wage book to court to prove that he was not paying workers R80 a month in 2005 when the farm was sold.
In 2005, when the farm was sold, he was paying one of the workers who had accused him of underpaying, R810 a month instead of the minimum wage of R713.68. He had not stolen the cattle of a worker’s brother because the brother had never had any cattle.
He named numerous ways that he assisted the farmworkers while still at the farm, including buying groceries, securing tenure for them when the farm was sold, starting a provident fund for them, arranging retrenchment packages when the Trollips left, and sending them presents for their birthdays after the farm was sold.
He was shocked that some of the workers that he knew and had grown up with were making accusations against him and decided they must have been told to do so.
The elderly father of the son of one of the people who made the accusations, said the farm had been sold to, and had not been stolen by Trollip’s family. Trollip said he was not an apartheid operative as claimed, and had only done his compulsory two-year military service required at the time.
Mali filed a plea and counter-claim in which he did not deny the comments directed at Trollip. Instead, he said they were in response to allegations of “cowardice” against former ANC mayor Danny Jordaan by DA MP Annette Lovemore.
Mali had started wearing ANC clothing by then.
Mali claimed R1.5m for defamation, accusing Trollip of calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” in articles published in the media, and of being a “sleeper” who was intending to disrupt the DA.
Mali contended that this implied he was a liar with no moral integrity. He later changed his damages claim to R5.5m.
The judge noted that Mali opted not to testify, leaving the judge to get his side of the story from the papers.
Acting Judge Toni said that “a defamatory statement is defined as the ‘unlawful, intentional publication of defamatory matter (by words of conduct) referring to the plaintiff which causes his reputation to be impaired.”
‘Neither justifiable nor reasonable’
Toni said it has already been established that publication on Facebook can constitute publication for the purpose of defamation. Toni found that Trollip had rebuffed the claims with honesty and no exaggeration, and so found in his favour.
“The impugned words posted on Facebook (as well as in the Herald) which are in issue in these proceedings indeed contain the defamatory meaning complained of by the plaintiff.
“The contents of the publications were blatant untruths and the publication thereof was neither justifiable nor reasonable,” said Toni.
Toni dismissed Mali’s defamation claims, with costs, and declared Mali’s “sheep in wolf’s clothing” complaint as “hogwash”.
Former ANC councillor Lawrence Troon has already apologised unconditionally to Trollip for being part of the allegations.
However, the judge had a word of warning ahead of the elections.
“Perhaps now is the time that seasoned political role players should learn to internalise the Bill of Rights enshrined in the Constitution and play their political football in a sensible and sensitive manner and with a measure of respect to each other’s constitutional rights.”