Defamation and character assassination

BECKER V BRITS [2022] ZAWCHC 44

The plaintiff was a very successful farmer who had farmed in his area for over 20 years and was an alumnus of the University of Stellenbosch. The defendant was a pastor to his family for at least 7 years. The defendant wrote letters making accusations about the plaintiff’s alleged abuse of alcohol. The plaintiff alleges that these letters were defamatory and that he suffered damages of R500,000. The defendant contends that the statements were the truth; alternatively, they were fair comments. Moreover, a shield is raised that these statements were neither defamatory nor wrongful and were not made with the intention to defame the plaintiff.

Wille J comments on the defendant’s strategy of character assassination of the plaintiff and that this will make it impossible for the family to function again as a unit. It appeared that the defendant conspired with the plaintiff’s ex-wife to attempt to settle some score with the plaintiff. Tragically, the plaintiff’s children were also hauled into this unnecessary skirmish and feud.

The judge made these comments about defamation laws:

“Defamation laws are generally aimed at protecting a person’s right to an unimpaired reputation and good name. Reputation is the reflection which the individual has in the eyes of society. In Masetlha, the following was stated generally in connection with the career and reputation of an individual, namely: ‘…People live not by bread alone; indeed, in the case of career functionaries, reputation and bread are often inseparable…’”

“As a general proposition the test for defamation is whether, in the eyes of a reasonable person with ordinary intelligence, the words used so impaired a person’s good name, reputation or esteem in the community.25 Reasonable readers take into consideration, not only what the words used expressly state, but also the implication of the words used”.

“The words about the plaintiff’s alleged alcohol abuse are clearly defamatory. Publication of a defamatory statement is prima facie wrongful and the onus rests on the defendant to dispel the prima facie case”.

The court awarded Plaintiff damages of R350,000 and costs on the attorney and client scale.

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