The cartoonist, who is being sued by the country’s (likely) future president for damages amounting to R9-million, describes himself as a patriotic sceptic. “To me, a cynic is someone who believes everything is sh*t, and that there’s no good in anyone. A sceptic is a very different kind of person.”
He admits that he often feels more disenchanted now than he did during the struggle. “At the moment, I’m battling this line between disillusionment and hope. And I reckon I must be like a lot of people.”
He is more positive about the future of the country than he is about the ANC (the party he has supported his “entire adult life”). “It is so shocking to see the levels to which some of the ANC people have stooped in the past few years – and that is during the Mbeki years and during this recent period in which (Jacob) Zuma has been (in charge of the ANC). So it’s not as if it started with Jacob Zuma and it’s not as if I’ve only started criticising them during this period either. I started criticising these things early in the Mandela presidency.”
Shapiro joined the UDF in 1983.
“I went to their launch and I knew immediately that I had found a political home. After that I was a very committed activist for about six years.” He very quickly became aware of the power of cartoons. The first UDF pamphlet he was involved with (on the Tricameral Parliament) was banned from being distributed.
It depicted former politician Allan Hendrickse as a thief who was trying to steal taxpayers’ money. “I gathered it got its message across pretty well in the township, and the security police and the government were very quick to pick it up and to ban it.”
In the early 1980s, Shapiro found himself in the army – “under protest”. Before joining, he did the odd drawing for the leftie groups, while studying (architechture), “but I was not an activist then. I found the whole white left (it was pretty much white left at UCT) a bit cliquey and a bit intimidating.”
Subsequently, the idea of supporting a government he hated through serving in the army turned him “into the beginnings of an activist”. Shapiro took a stand by refusing to bear arms. “I just gritted my teeth and said this is it. I’m going to resist this system.
“They really did harass me.”
Nevertheless, the situation didn’t scare him. He explains:
“I knew very well that the people who were really at risk were people who were working for the ANC underground, for Umkhonto we Sizwe. I knew people who were ANC operatives, but I actually didn’t want to know too much about what they were doing other than the UDF stuff.
“I was also aware that the real heroes of the struggle against conscription and the struggle to make a real stand against the army were those people who absolutely refused to go into the army at all, and could face up to six years in jail. Nobody actually spent six years in jail, but it was rough.”
He says he was very open about his involvement with the UDF while in the army. “I used to plaster my car with UDF stickers. It wasn’t a secret.” Which could explain why he was arrested in October 1983 along with “the first group of people ever to be charged with conducting an illegal gathering in cars”. The fact that they were travelling in a motorcade was considered to constitute an offence. “Trevor Manuel (now minister of finance) is the person who came to bail us out. I’ve got a drawing that I did of him, an on-the-spot sketch, grinning from ear to ear.”
By 1987, Shapiro had been an activist for the better part of five years “and things were pretty draining, you know”. He applied for and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, which enabled him to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
In the Big Apple, where he lived for over two years, he married photographer Karina Turok. “We went down to City Hall where they had a registry office, and then we went up to the top of the World Trade Center. Our wedding pictures (show us) on the top of the building, which is very weird.”
Shapiro says the fact that he had a personal connection to the city that became the target of terrorist attacks in September 2001, was not a hurdle to his work.
“As a cartoonist, I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve. I’ve never liked doing cartoons that are dispassionate and show two equal forces and that kind of thing. I’ve always made a strong stand in favour of something; against something else.”
Shapiro cannot think of “too many times” when he got it wrong in his cartoons. “There are small things where I might have made a call too quickly on someone, which is what the risk is as a cartoonist.
“You really do have to shoot from the hip; you have to shoot quickly and try and shoot accurately. Sometimes, you shoot quickly and a little inaccurately. That does happen.”
He says he knew before publication that there was a possibility that Zuma would sue him for the cartoon portraying Lady Justice about to be raped by the president of the ANC.
“I didn’t know he would sue, but I thought there was a possibility that he could; I knew that it was much tougher than any of the cartoons that he had sued me for.
“(But) I felt then and I feel now that it is a cartoon that I can completely back up with focusing on the statements that he had made; that all the other people in the cartoon had made, which were clearly intimidatory and threatening towards the judiciary. I thought I could back up the cartoon and I also felt (and I still do) that the other (defamation) case had just been bubbling along and not going anywhere really, and so I suppose I thought, well maybe he’s just going to know that I haven’t been intimidated.”
He adds: “For the moment he is suing me for R9-million for two cases (one dating back to 2006), neither of which have a court date and I don’t believe they’ll ever really get to court.”
After producing six to seven cartoons per week for 14 years, Shapiro has dropped his output to about two a week. “The reason that I’ve stopped doing so many cartoons is partly due to the stress of doing it with so much intensity for so long, and partly because I knew that I could not get the book The Mandela Files (a collection of cartoons of the former head of state) together if I was doing six cartoons a week.”
Will he up the number of cartoons now that the book has been published? “You’ve spotted the dilemma. I’m not sure. I’m picking up all kinds of fantastic and interesting things that people want me to do. So, I could end this year still doing two cartoons a week. I’ve been invited to a whole lot of different places around the world, so I could do that kind of thing as well.
“I’m sure by next year I will be doing more.”
Shapiro is the co-creator of a satirical TV show featuring puppets of politicians and celebrities, called “Z News”. The pilot was commissioned with the idea of doing a 13-part series, but it has not yet been broadcast.
“It’s been viewed by (the SABC’s) top people and debated backwards and forwards and we really don’t know what they are going to do. I think if they haven’t given any approval now, I can’t see how we can be optimistic that they’re going to do it. (He believes politics at the SABC might be partly responsible for the state of affairs.) Which is a great pity because we really think that this country is absolutely ripe for this kind of thing.
“We’ve been trying to do this sort of thing for 10 years. It’s got great potential but you need a lot of financial backing.
“Now, of course, we’re looking at all kinds of options (other outlets) for it. There is lots of interest; and lots of discussion,” he says.
- This profile first appeared in The Media magazine (March 2009).
- The SABC has to date failed to respond to an enquiry from The Media magazine about “Z News”.