Cartoonists make us laugh, make us think – and make politicians mad. South Africa’s top cartoonists tell Joanna Wright why.
Laughter might be the best medicine, but when it’s at the expense of the powerful, it becomes a political tool. Just ask the world’s leaders, many of whom are deeply afraid of ridicule. In Zimbabwe, for instance, it’s illegal to joke about President Robert Mugabe.
And in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma went to a lot of trouble and expense to sue cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro). This 2008 lawsuit was brought against Zapiro and the Sunday Times over the ‘Rape of Lady Justice’ cartoon. Zuma finally dropped the case in late October 2012, but not before it had added to the ongoing debate in this country around freedom of expression. Brett Murray’s ‘The Spear’ painting debacle and perceived attacks on press freedom, like the Protection of State Information Bill, fuelled the debate. The freedom to criticise the prevailing order without persecution has been seen as a cornerstone of democracy and, for this reason, the political cartoonist’s role is seen as implicitly democratic (see ‘The case of Zuma versus Zapiro’, The Media, December 2012).
Political cartoonists ply their unusual trade at a unique intersection of humour, editorial commentary and art. This special space seems to give them a licence to criticise power. As much as Zapiro’s indefatigable, confrontational, even sometimes aggressive, ridiculing of Zuma has not been tolerated by the president himself, Zapiro had the full support of the Sunday Times and many members of the public.
Cartoonist and Stellenbosch University academic Andy Mason – author of ‘What’s So Funny?’ considered to be the definitive book on South African cartoons – says the political cartoonist derives his licence by occupying ‘the jester’s space’. He maintains that like the court jesters of medieval Europe, a cartoonist is allowed – even expected – to produce trenchant criticism of the status quo while provoking laughter.
Anthony Stidolph agrees. Stidy, as he is known, has drawn the political cartoon for The Witness in KwaZulu-Natal since 1990. He says the cartoonist’s licence is built into the medium. “Political caricature is offensive by design and I think readers (and politicians) generally expect a more adversarial style of execution than, say, the sober-minded judgements of editorial writers, where balance and fairness is considered all important,” says Stidy.
“Exaggeration and distortion are the cartoonists’ stock tools of the trade. He uses them not only to probe for a deeper buried truth but to make his meaning clearer, since he can’t write at length as columnists can. In other words, we are expected to be wild and anarchic,” he adds.
However, the cartoonist is not just a force for democracy because he is a critic. He (in South Africa there are no female cartoonists) can also play a role as an educator. Len Sak is the creator of Jojo, a loveable character who graced the pages of Drum and The Sowetan for decades in an eponymous strip. Sak grew up in Port Elizabeth “absolutely fascinated” by cartoons. He moved to Johannesburg and began his career in 1956, drawing two strips a week for Bantu World.
He was always drawn to the black press, as “it seemed to be the only place where I’d find relevance to what was going on in South Africa”. Sak began drawing Jojo for Drum in 1959. ‘Jojo’ is a tubby, township dweller who often speaks from outside the cartoon, commenting on the action. He has a distinctly didactic function, as the comic deals with issues such as the importance of education and respect for the elderly. Sak was commissioned to draw individual political cartoons for various newspapers, but that was not his main interest. ‘Jojo’, however, was inherently political and it became more explicitly so after the Soweto Uprising of 1976.
Research done in the 1980s showed ‘Jojo’ was widely loved by readers. Before South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Sak drew voter education cartoons using Jojo. It is a measure of his enduring appeal that a major bank recently asked Sak for the rights to the character. The bank had never heard of the strip, but market research had shown that he would be a valuable mascot for a consumer education campaign. Sak turned the bank down – it’s not his sort of thing. His ultimate ambition is to put together a “people’s comic” that will “inspire kids to a better society (and) strengthen democracy”.
Like Sak, Dov Fedler, who has a long-running political cartoon in The Star among other publications owned by Independent Newspapers, believes that cartoonists are the commentators, standing on the sidelines; they are not the story itself. This is in contrast to Zapiro, who, Fedler says, often makes himself the story, to the extent of putting himself in his own cartoons. Unlike Sak, Fedler doesn’t believe that cartoons play much of a role in changing opinion. History has a momentum of its own and “cartoons are the dog piss on the doorstep of history”, he says. “We’re a diversion, not the main part of the story. I’m an anonymous guy, standing as an aside. I don’t think cartoonists are that important. We don’t change political stances. The future of this country will be determined by a lack of jobs,” he says.
As much as cartoonists represent democracy, white men dominate the trade in South Africa. One black cartoonist is Sifiso Yalo, who draws cartoons for The Sowetan. Just don’t call him that – he hates the label. “I don’t know what a ‘black cartoonist’ is and I really hate this colour coding we have in this country… all cartoonists face the same challenges (ideas ideas, funny funny); however, I find that black people, some of my friends, for instance, expect me to take sides on race issues… that’s one particular challenge I face.” He says colour is irrelevant to cartooning, as cartoonists “work in stealth mode and we’re very objective”.
“Most people know our work not our faces and I prefer to keep it that way,” Yalo adds.
All the cartoonists interviewed by The Media agreed that there seems to be a crackdown on artistic freedom of expression in South Africa. Rico, co-creator of the much-loved ‘Madam & Eve’ strip, says, “There is a general push from the current government… There’s always a tendency for governments to swing to the right and limit freedom of expression. It makes their jobs easier. But there’s been a very strong push back from a vibrant media and the Constitution.”
This was highlighted by the recent dismissal of Jeremy Nell (Jerm), The New Age’s inaugural political cartoonist. The daily, fairly or not, has a reputation for being close to the government and when Nell was fired, his case attracted media attention, a lot of it abroad. Zapiro even showed his support for Nell, lampooning TNA in a cartoon. “I suppose the (overwhelming and unexpected) interest in my binning is because I was taken aboard as their political cartoonist and then fired because my political commentary wasn’t what they wanted. There’s an obvious irony in that,” says Nell. He now draws political cartoons twice a week for the Eyewitness News website.
As important as their freedom of expression is, do cartoonists have a certain responsibility to hold back sometimes? For Rico, the line is a subjective one and lies in the realm of common sense and good taste – self-censorship, in other words. For Stidy, “any occasional harm done or ‘bad taste’ displayed by cartoonists like Zapiro pales into absolute insignificance when compared to the damage inflicted by politicians themselves on a routine basis”. It is not always easy to know when one is being defamatory, he adds, but “politicians, being public figures, are expected to be able to withstand a certain amount of mockery and not to complain too loudly when they get hit in the face by the odd metaphorical tomato”.
Stidy feels that the power of cartoons has been eroded by the digital age (though some are embracing it – Zapiro is soon to launch an iPad app). However, cartoons are still relevant and have a rare function. When done well, they make us laugh, rile or educate us – all in one or two frames. They speak to informed, engaged citizens – if that’s not democracy, what is? And perhaps they play a more basic role of making people feel they are not alone. As Stidy says, “[Cartoonists] perform an important role in just getting people to laugh. It gives the reader a measure of comfort to know that there is somebody else out there who finds life – and politics – as absurd as they do.”
This story was first published in the January 2013 issue of The Media magazine.