The High Court in Johannesburg on Tuesday reserved judgment in the matter between former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) over 'libellous' claims the party made in relation to the appointment of new tax boss, Edward Kieswetter.
Manuel had approached the court to demand that the EFF retract its statement, arguing that it was damaging to his reputation. Manuel’s legal representative, Advocate Carol Steinberg, argued that claims of corruption and nepotism were not only harmful to his reputation but also undermined the credibility of the country's revenue service. Manuel was the head of the selection panel that interviewed candidates for the top job at the South African Revenue Service (Sars).
“As things stand, the public is told that the new Sars commissioner was not appointed because he is the best for the job, but because he is close to Manuel, and that they are business associates” said Steinberg.
Steinberg argued at length about the implications of the EFF comments on social media in relation to Manuel and the Kieswetter appointment.
“When there are statements bandied about that the new head of Sars is a dodgy character, obviously tax morality would be impaired. If Sars is undermined, government is undermined.”
In a statement published on March 27, the EFF claimed that Kieswetter was a "dodgy character" and Manuel's relative and former business associate.
The party also said the new commissioner had been "secretly chosen". Manuel at the time said the characterisation was "libellous" and "racist". He also called for a retraction, threatening legal action before following through.
Claim 'injurious and false'
Steinberg argued that the claims that Manuel was nepotistic was “injurious and false” and that the public assertion by the EFF that the two leaders were business associates who were related were false.
Kieswetter was deputy Sars commissioner between 2004 and 2009 when Manuel was minister of finance - a fact that Manuel disclosed with his fellow panelists on the selection committee.
According to Steinberg, the panel resolved that Manuel and Kieswetter's prior working relationship was not reason enough for Manuel to recuse himself.
Manuel's court papers say, however, that he recused himself from Kieswetter's interview regardless as he and Kieswetter had remained "friendly". His recusal had been solely out of an "abundance of caution".
The panel made recommendations, but was not involved in Kieswetter's final selection. Manuel is asking the court to order the EFF to remove the statement from its Twitter account within 24 hours and issue an unconditional apology.
He also wants the party to pay damages of R500 000 or an amount determined by the court, as well as Manuel's legal costs.
He has said the money would be donated to a worthy cause.
Meanwhile, it is the EFF's case that its initial statement on Manuel and Kieswetter's relationship was not defamatory.
Advocate Vuyani Ngalwana, representing the EFF, told the court that Manuel had not "shown evidence" that his reputation had been harmed.
“Declaring the statement defamatory would have a chilling effect on free speech….and for a citizen of this country not to be able to make a statement on something they reasonably believe to be true,” he said.
Judge Elias Matojane reserved judgment in the matter.