Former president Jacob Zuma on the third day of testimony before the commission of inquiry into state capture. Picture: AFP/KIM LUDBROOK
Former president Jacob Zuma on the third day of testimony before the commission of inquiry into state capture. Picture: AFP/KIM LUDBROOK

Social media, once seen as a powerful force for deepening democracy and giving a voice to the many excluded by traditional news sources, has taken a knock in recent years. Today people are more likely to associate it with anarchy, half-truths and outright lies, which can often have deadly consequences. 

In SA there is a growing trend where innuendo, insults and lies have replaced the type of civil engagement that the wider access to communication tools was supposed to facilitate. Often the perpetrators do so confident that they will not be held to account.

Take the case of former president  Jacob Zuma and his outrageous allegations against former colleagues, made publicly with no consideration for the consequences for those involved. Anybody who follows Zuma’s official account will see how some of his followers, whether humans or internet bots, took his accusations at face value.

That is why former minister Derek Hanekom’s decision to sue the former president for suggesting that he spied for the apartheid government is important. It comes just under three months after former finance minister Trevor Manuel’s win in his defamation case against the EFF. 

In this regard, SA Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago’s decision to sue ANC member Andile Lungisa for using a racist slur against him, also on Twitter, will be equally important in entrenching the idea that people should be held accountable for what they post on social media, as they would if they published in a newspaper.

In the Hanekom case, Zuma, emboldened by his ally ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, called the former minister a “known enemy of the state”.

This was after EFF leader Julius Malema told his supporters that Hanekom had “plotted” with the red berets to bring down Zuma. The former minister confirmed that he met EFF secretary-general Godrich Gardee. 

This prompted Magashule to issue a statement in his capacity as ANC secretary-general calling Hanekom a charlatan and a wedge driver.

Zuma’s insinuation that Hanekom was a spy came a few days after he sat at the state capture commission of inquiry and stated that two other former ministers, who he had appointed to his cabinet, were spies.

He alleged that Ngoako Ramatlhodi, a former mineral resources, and public service and administration minister, had been recruited to be an apartheid spy in Lesotho while he was a student. And Zuma accused former minister and chief of the SA National Defence Force Siphiwe Nyanda of taking instruction from the apartheid police.

All three — Hanekom, Ramatlhodi and Nyanda — have publicly made allegations against Zuma, with two of them already having given testimony against him at the state capture inquiry. 

Clearly incensed that ministers he had appointed to the executive would turn around and testify against him, Zuma went on to accuse them of being apartheid spies.

This is a serious allegation, especially considering SA’s political history. Many of those who were fighting for the freedom of the majority in this country lost their lives and some because their own comrades had turned on them. To make such allegations now could have the same consequences and is damaging for the country. 

Hanekom’s defamation case is expected to be heard in court next week and Zuma will have to provide proof of the allegation. If he is unable to do this he could be slapped with a hefty order — just ask the EFF, which has to fork out R500,000, the same amount that Hanekom is seeking, in the Manuel case. The EFF is appealing the judgment. 

The party made blanket statements about Manuel without providing any facts and was penalised for it. 

Zuma has already complained that he is unable to afford his legal bills as he tries to fight corruption charges in the Pietermaritzburg high court, and this latest court fight could prove expensive for him. If he loses, and Ramatlhodi and Nyanda follow Hanekom’s example, it could be even more costly.

Wittingly or otherwise, he may also have given the country an opportunity to establish an important principle about accountability and social media. That could be for the long-term benefit of our political discourse.