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Cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro says the current pressure against the media is not nearly as bad as they were during apartheid, but has worsened in recent years.Schalk van Zuydam/The Associated Press

It was one of the most shocking and controversial cartoons in South African history: a ferocious caricature that even the artist admitted would be impossible to publish in many countries.

The cartoon showed President Jacob Zuma unbuckling his pants and preparing to rape a blindfolded Lady Justice figure while his supporters cheered him on.

It was a critique of Mr. Zuma's alleged interference with the justice system after he was charged with corruption, but it was attacked as racist and disrespectful, and an outraged Mr. Zuma filed suit against the cartoonist, Jonathan Shapiro (known as Zapiro), demanding an apology and $580,000 in damages.

But it was revealed on Sunday, on the eve of the scheduled trial, that Mr. Zuma had suddenly abandoned the four-year legal battle and agreed to pay half of the legal costs of the newspaper that published the cartoon. His spokesman said Mr. Zuma didn't want to limit "the public exercise of free speech."

The dramatic turn of events is being hailed as a major victory for freedom of speech in South Africa, which had been under assault when the ANC forced an art gallery to remove "The Spear" – a satirical painting that showed Mr. Zuma with his genitals exposed.

But the decision to abandon the lawsuit is fuelling a new controversy: the rising cost of Mr. Zuma's legal bills. Just last week, the government agreed to spend an extra $2.3-million on Mr. Zuma's legal costs, covering a wide variety of lawsuits and legal battles. It gave no breakdown of the expenses for different cases, but it is presumed to include the "Lady Justice" legal costs.

Mr. Zuma, who was acquitted of a rape charge in 2006, continues to insist that the "Lady Justice" cartoon was hurtful and wrong. The cartoonist "wanted to perpetrate an image of the President as a sexual deviant" and showed deep prejudice about "African males and sexual mores," his office said on Sunday. It added that that Mr. Zuma "would like to avoid setting a legal precedent that may have the effect of limiting the public exercise of free speech." And it said a legal battle would be "an unnecessary diversion" in the current economic climate.

Mr. Zuma has been embroiled in many court cases lately, including the "Spear" case and a long-running battle over the wiretapped audio recordings that played a mysterious role in prosecutors' decision to drop corruption charges against Mr. Zuma in 2009, just days before he won election as president.

Even after abandoning the "Lady Justice" case, Mr. Zuma is still pursuing 12 further lawsuits against local and international media, including two lawsuits over other Shapiro cartoons.

Mr. Shapiro, the best-known cartoonist in South Africa, was quick to declare victory on Sunday, saying that he was vindicated and Mr. Zuma had "capitulated." In the Sunday Times, the same newspaper that published the original cartoon in 2008, he celebrated victory with a sketch portraying himself and Lady Justice pinning Mr. Zuma to the ground. Waving a copy of the original, he is shown asking the president: "Are we done here?"

Mr. Shapiro said he would have liked the case to go to trial because he was certain of winning. "Everything that the cartoon depicted, like Zuma bullying the justice system, has come true," he told the Sunday Times.

"We are extremely happy with this outcome, but a lot of time and taxpayer money has been wasted on an ill-considered effort to curtail free expression," added Ray Hartley, the newspaper's editor.

Mr. Shapiro is a long-time ANC supporter and anti-apartheid activist who sometimes had his cartoons banned by the apartheid regime and was even briefly jailed. He has said that the current pressures against the media are not nearly as bad as they were during apartheid, but have worsened in recent years.

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