MP threatens to sue Zackie Achmat and #UniteBehind for defamation

Achmat accused Sfiso Buthelezi of benefitting from corruption at PRASA

By Liezl Human

24 July 2023

Former PRASA chairperson and member of parliament, Sfiso Buthelezi, is threatening to sue Zackie Achmat, director of commuter activist group #UniteBehind, for defamation for statements he made during a radio interview in April. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Former PRASA chairperson and member of parliament, Sfiso Buthelezi, is threatening to sue Zackie Achmat, director of commuter activist group #UniteBehind, for defamation. This after Achmat made statements during a radio interview in which he accused Buthelezi of corruption during his time at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA).

Buthelezi, through his lawyers, sent a letter of demand to Achmat on 6 July, demanding a written retraction and public apology in “prominent media outlets” as well as a damages payment of R2-million for “reputational harm”.

During Achmat’s interview on Radio 702 on 18 April, he stated that Buthelezi “benefited personally, and his companies linked to him benefited personally, from corruption to the tune of at least R120-million and I believe much more” and that “[National] Treasury investigations found that he should be charged, and I know that charges have been laid against him, but nothing has come of it”.

Buthelezi’s lawyers, RMT Attorneys, wrote that the radio interview contained “false” statements which were “damaging and defamatory to his personal and professional reputation” and that the “claims are entirely without merit and lack any supporting evidence”. The letter also states that Buthelezi would initiate legal proceedings if the damages are not paid within two weeks.

#UniteBehind responded to this with a statement on Monday, 24 July — the deadline for the payment of R2 million in damages. The organisation said that Achmat and #UniteBehind refuse to be “intimidated by Buthelezi’s threats and will vehemently defend the right to freedom of speech”. The organisation said it was now the target of a strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP) suit.

“PRASA’s destruction has undermined the rights to life, food, safety, education, employment, equality and dignity of working class people,” #UniteBehind’s statement read.

Buthelezi is currently a member of parliament and chairperson of the Standing Committee on Appropriations (SCOA). #UniteBehind, in the statement, demanded that the Speaker of Parliament immediately remove Buthelezi as SCOA chair, that the ANC remove Buthelezi as an MP, and that the NPA prosecute Buthelezi “diligently and without delay”.

#UniteBehind said that the PRASA Board, under Buthelezi’s leadership, “maintained almost no oversight of the many unlawful contracts concluded during this period; instead it facilitated corruption”. It refers to several reports detailing corruption at PRASA, including former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s Derailed report, findings from the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, the Auditor-General’s report from 2022, and #PRASALeaks, among others.

Parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo told GroundUp that they were not aware of correspondence between the Speaker and Achmat on the matter. “However, according to procedure, any allegations of wrongdoing on the side of a member of the public against a member of parliament must be filed as a complaint with the ethics committee. The Speaker does not have the authority to arbitrarily investigate or dismiss Members of Parliament.”

But #UniteBehind laid complaints against six MPs last year, including Buthelezi, hoping that Parliament’s Joint Committee on Ethics and Members’ Interests would hold the MPs accountable for their involvement in corruption at PRASA. “These MPs have been party to the destruction of commuter rail services in our country,” #UniteBehind said in its statement.

#UniteBehind also launched court action against the parliamentary committee in April this year for failing to act on its complaints.

Buthelezi’s legal representative Gcwali Makhathini said that Buthelezi “has no comment on the matter at this stage”.