It’s become popular to attack the suits for being cringing toadies to power but of course it’s more complex than that.
I think our broadcasters and advertisers are profoundly conservative, and certainly political expediency plays a part sometimes, but ultimately they give the public what it wants; and what South Africa wants is wrestling, non-stop sport, reality TV and gospel music. It wants to be completely passive. In general it does not want satire because it either doesn’t understand it or is deeply disturbed by it. I’m still regularly described as “acerbic” or “bitchy” when all I’m doing a lot of the time is making fairly obvious gags and attributing them to people with silly names.
I suspect that this ingrained suspicion of satire speaks to our past: blacks were kept uneducated and so generally didn’t have the chance to discover satire as a weapon to use against the ruling minority, while whites’ entire world view for the last 300 years has been focussed on not rocking the boat by questioning their privilege or the status quo.
And it’s still going on today. Our young black citizens are as badly educated as ever and our young whites have learned all that keep-your-head-down bullshit from their parents. Of course the under-35s and the Born Frees like to think we’re so bad-ass and liberated but middle-class Frenchmen in wigs and tights were cutting off royal heads 200 years ago. We rebel by wearing takkies to work on Casual Day. In middle-class South Africa you’re considered a nihilistic anarchist if you decide not to get married and have children.
Another major problem facing satire in SA is that of race. Satire can attack all manner of social ills but its most popular and powerful form has always been as an assault on an iniquitous political status quo. It’s easy to do that when your target is a globally vilified band of thugs – the Nazis, the apartheid regime, even George W Bush – but what happens when the “good guys” sweep into power?
John Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’ ran into this crisis when Obama became President. And in SA the situation is far more complex because it’s becoming harder to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and race labels fly thick and fast. In the case of Hayibo we often had white writers attacking a black, democratically elected government, writing with brains fed and educated by the last vestiges of white privilege, but attacking injustices perpetrated mainly on poor blacks. And to cap it off, we would have racist Neanderthals crawling out of the woodwork to praise our articles for pointing out how degenerate blacks were. It gets very messy very fast.
This, by the way, is an increasingly worrying trend in local comedy in general: the inability to separate an incompetent or corrupt government from the race of its members. Hayibo’s racist fans – and many fans of local stand-up comedy – believe that an attack on the government is a validation of their belief that blacks are lying, cheating, stealing etc etc etc varmints. The comedians are guilty of this too: I’ve seen too many stand-ups claiming to be “politically incorrect” – and being cheered by their audience – when all they’re doing is giving voice to the racism of their audiences under the guise of free speech and comedy. More and more they’re encouraging us to laugh at the funny accent rather than at what’s being said in the funny accent.
As for whether the public are becoming more or less suspicious of cartoonists: I think that the people who are getting more suspicious are not targeting cartoonists specifically. They are losing their faith in the media in general, partly because they’re easily swayed by government anti-media rhetoric and partly because the media is so often so guilty of gross distortions and hidden political and economic agendas. Of course, that our politicians choose to target cartoonists shows how incredibly unsophisticated they are as readers: they fail to recognise the ignore constant racial profiling and paranoid fantasy in many news reports but attack a picture that makes no claims on being news. It’s not just politicians, though.
Most south Africans don’t understand that things like columns and cartoons are not news but rather entertainment aimed at a specific socio-economic group of consumers. We like to pretend that Zapiro is holding up a mirror to society but of course he isn’t: he’s interpreting current affairs for the edification and amusement of a very specific niche. They happen to be the newspaper-buying, book-reading, TV-watching niche, which is why he is (rightly) a national celebrity. But I would guess that Zapiro remains utterly obscure to perhaps 70 per cent of the country’s citizens.