Australian press reported on Friday that MRC (Mineral Resources Commodities) executive chair Mark Caruso has stepped down from the board after been charged with common assault and unlawful trespass following an alleged incident.
The incident reportedly involved Caruso assisting a friend in the enforcement of an abandonment order, and a subsequent property seizure and delivery order. An abandonment order is when a tenant leaves a property before the end of the tenancy agreement without notifying the landlord or letting agent.
According to MiningNews.net, Caruso has stepped down as a director of the company while he defends the charges, but remains in his role as CEO.
Caruso told the company that he believed he was acting with lawful authority and in accordance with all relevant laws.
The Australian Financial Review reported that Caruso had pleaded not guilty to the charge of unlawful trespass and would contest a further three charges, two of common assault and one of aggravated home burglary. Caruso has also resigned as chair of Connexion Telematics, a company involved in the development of smart car technology.
Controversial projects in SA
MRC owns the Tormin Mineral Sands project 360km north of Cape Town. It is also involved in the Xolobeni Mineral Sands project on the Wild Coast, a venture mired in controversy and apparent stalemate while pro- and anti-mining activists slug it out. Anti-Xolobeni mining activist Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe was gunned down by unknown assailants in 2016.
MRC and Caruso filed defamation suits and are seeking more than R14 million in damages against six South Africans either critical of or opposed to its mining activities in SA.
Two attorneys with the Centre for Environmental Rights were sued after giving a presentation at the University of Cape Town where they criticised the company’s environmental practices at Tormin. Caruso and MRC are seeking R10 million damages from social worker and journalist John GI Clarke for allegedly implicating MRC in the murder of Rhadebe, a charge that Clarke denies. Also being charged for defamation is environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan after a radio interview in which he suggested pro-mining representatives of the local community had been bought off.
All six defendants claim the defamation suits filed by Caruso and MRC are ‘Slapp’ (strategic litigation against public participation) suits as they form part of a pattern of conduct which has the ulterior purpose of discouraging, censoring, intimidating and silencing not only the defendants, but also members of civil society, the public and the media in relation to public criticism of Caruso and MRC.
In June, lawyers for Caruso and MRC filed “exceptions” (formal objections) to special pleas raised by the defendants arguing that Caruso and MRC were abusing court processes by using litigation to cause financial and other prejudice in order to silence opposition. The defendants also argued that their constitutional rights to freedom of expression were being violated.
The six defendants also argued that the defamation claims were “bad in law” because a company operating for profit cannot claim defamation and damages without proving that the allegedly defamatory statements are false, were made wilfully, and resulted in loss.
“We are asking the court to clarify and develop the law about when defamation proceedings can be struck out, if brought for an ulterior purpose,” says Odette Geldenhuys, attorney and partner at Webber Wentzel, which is representing the six defendants.
Western Cape Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath has yet to deliver her findings in the exception and special pleas case.
The highest sum ever awarded in a South African defamation suit is believed to be R500 000.
Such an award was made to former tourism minister Derek Hanekom when he sued former president Jacob Zuma for alleging that he was an apartheid spy. Zuma appealed his loss in the KwaZulu-Natal High Court all the way to the Constitutional Court, which dismissed the appeal.
Former finance minister Trevor Manuel was also awarded R500 000 for defamation after the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) alleged that he was a business associate of Edward Kieswetter, who was appointed commissioner of the South African Revenue Service (Sars) last year.
Manuel headed up a selection panel to interview candidates for the commissioner post, though did not make the final decision. The EFF’s appeal against the decision was dismissed last year by Judge Elias Matojane of the South Gauteng High Court.