Activist group AfriForum has failed in its court bid to force the Open Stellenbosch (OS) movement supporter Johannes Pienaar to remove social media posts suggesting the organisation’s supporters had threatened to rape women at an End Rape Culture protest earlier this year.
Acting Judge Michael Donen found on Friday the relief sought by AfriForum and its head of local government affairs, Marcus Christiaan Pawson, would have a detrimental effect on political free speech.
AfriForum could meet political criticism by responding to the posts with rebuttals on social media, he said.
The judgment stems from protest action in the vicinity of the JS Marais statue at Stellenbosch University on March 3. On the one side was a march organised by the the EFF Student Command at the university, which supports the OS movement. On the other side, was AfriForum, there to celebrate the university’s heritage and clean up the campus, including scrubbing graffiti off the statue.
Violent clashes between the two factions followed and soon afterwards Pienaar posted a video clip of the incident, along with a post that read: “Look at how Marcus Pawson from AfriForum uses rape to intimidate a rape survivor.
“This happened on Thursday and this is what AfriForum is desperately trying to cover up with spurious criminal charges and fake civil action.”
He later tweeted: “Watch how @MarcusAfr of @Afriforum uses rape to intimidate a rape survivor.”
Pawson alleged the tweet was “vexatious and unfounded”, and denied any AfriForum supporter had threatened anyone with rape.
AfriForum alleged the posts were defamatory and falsely suggested supporters of AfriForum had threatened to rape women that day. Six other employees of AfriForum supported the view.
Pawson claimed Pienaar had pretended to shield a woman, who was not being attacked, as a publicity stunt.
But witnesses who testified in support of Pienaar said AfriFforum members were cleaning the slogan “End Rape Culture” off the statue when they turned on women and groped them.
The court heard AfriForum supporters had laughed, doused women’s bodies with soapy sponges and touched them inappropriately. One woman said she had felt sexually vulnerable and violated.
In his judgment, Acting Judge Donen found the affidavits filed in support of Pienaar cast serious doubt on AfriForum’s case.
He said the display of loyalty by AfriForum supporters for whatever the statue stood for went beyond the boundaries of lawful conduct.
“By thrusting themselves into the public eye, and by entering the premises of Stellenbosch University in order to confront student groups with opposing political views, AfrFforum opened themselves to public scrutiny. They must consequently display a greater degree of tolerance to criticism than ordinary individuals,” he said.
He found Pienaar was entitled to a certain amount of latitude in describing the confrontation and his “robust political riposte” constituted an exercise of freedom of expression, which did not involve defamatory statements.
Acting Judge Donen added the protection of the dignity of women, such as those abused by AfriForum supporters, was of paramount importance under the constitution, and said that Pienaar’s comments were fair.
“The post has been posted, shared and viewed. The internet world has moved on,” he said.