Lwandile Fikeni
Lwandile Fikeni

The only clown here is the cartoonist

Everywhere you go, some shit word will collide with you on the wrong side of the road. — Dambudzo Marechera, The Black Insider

I have a profound respect for language. Words dream us into being and knit together the world around us. Think of this passage from your trusted King James Bible: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In short, the scholars of the biblical times were well aware of the power of words — even a singular word — and language. The world doesn’t exist without language, without the words that create, define and describe it. While words are signifiers, it would be unfortunate to think of them as innocent. Words have history; they produce history and in turn are produced by it.

Think of the word “faggot”. Originally used to refer to “a bundle of sticks”, it has since been wielded to attain certain ends. In late 16th century English it was used as a contemptuous term for women. The understanding was that a “bundle of sticks” was something awkward to carry, just like baggage, or a worthless woman. The word was first recorded as a pejorative term against homosexual people in 1914 in the US and was later, in 1921, shortened to fag.

It isn’t hard to imagine that this word has been spat out many times as a deluge of fists, boots and bricks break on a person’s face because he or she happens to be attracted to someone of the same sex. One day you wake up a human being and go to sleep a faggot, through a word. A word made visible by the violence it perpetrates to those subject to it. A word that leaves painful bruises in its wake. That is if you’re lucky. Some people aren’t as lucky. The 21-year-old man from Ceres who was allegedly tortured and killed, recently, for being gay is just one of many of the unlucky ones. We cannot speak of homophobia without taking into account its vocabulary and the violence it instigates.

Another word that comes to mind is a South African favourite — “kaffir”. Originally, an Arabic term used by Muslims to describe those who did not believe in the word of the Qur’an: infidels or non-believers, if you may. But in South Africa, this term took a dangerous turn as it propelled the Afrikaner to commit the worst acts of violence in the name of racism. The worst terrors in our recent history were spurred on by the word “kaffir”. Massacres and murders were soaked with these five letters and two syllables. It reduced blacks to something less than human, something of no value except as cheap labour, where the state police machinery could easily mow down hundreds of thousands of people, children included, without thinking twice. Here, we begin to see quite clearly that words carry the burden of history, they are themselves burdened by it and are also the contents, components, constructs as well as producers of history. In this instance, we can’t remove the word “kaffir” from its historical violence and humiliation.

On May 28 2014, an Eyewitness News cartoonist, gave new subjects to the word “clown”. The Oxford dictionary offers us a few definitions: one is that of a comic entertainer; the second is a playful person eg a class clown, and then the last (the one more relevant in our argument) is that of a clown as a foolish or incompetent person. In a stroke of a pen or a pencil “clown” became a noun for blacks who vote for the ANC.

If you haven’t seen it, the cartoon shows ANC leaders in clown costumes, “clowning” about and a gallery of voters, depicted as clowns, watching on. The caption reads: “A congress of clowns (ANC) … And the clowns who voted them in.” I stated earlier that words aren’t innocent. And we must take into account that the majority of the ANC vote comes from black voters so 11.4 million people were interpolated into a single word and a single narrative — that of foolishness and incompetence.

How is this cartoon different from the racist narrative of blacks as lazy, foolish and incompetent? Some invoke the “freedom of speech” argument when talking of this cartoon; others demand a little sense of humour. For a people who’ve been massacred, violated and called names, you must understand Mr Cartoonist that “clown” takes on a different hue, a racial hue, considering all the elements in your cartoon and the elements of our history.

Since it appears that blacks are still fair game in this country, we must, then, address a number of things pertaining to the pejorative language used against them or any other community. Speaking any given language requires tremendous creativity. And since language implies great inventiveness and power on the part of the user, we must be responsible for the words we use. Especially the derogatory words we use to hurt others. If we look at the reference to the King James Bible: the word is the creator and the creator is the word. So logically, he who calls another person a “faggot” must be a “faggot”, first and foremost. And the person who calls another a “kaffir” must own up to the fact that it is he who is a “kaffir”. And the cartoonist who calls others “clowns” — foolish and incompetent — must be the “clown”.

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    • Edward Hanyane

      You are a mystery clothed in intrigue if you expect that what you say will be as eloquent as what you think or expect. Cartoons are not meant to comfort us, they are ,meant to challenge our thinking and perspectives. They reveal also the differences between short term gains and delayed long term gains that are better able to move the people forward.At the end of it all if a cartoon has a response it is more valuable and more meaningful than the cartoon that did not get a response.

    • gary west

      Not only were the voters called clowns in the cartoon but also poephols. So not only does EWN / Primedia / whitemedia think that anyone involved in any way with the ANC including their voters, are clowns but also arseholes. I think its great that such cartoons are published, it gives us an insight as to what certain sectors of the media think about most people in the country. This then allows us to more accurately interpret the veracity and value of the opinions they are so fond of giving.

    • Charlotte

      This is all semantics. Playing around with the ‘correctness’ of words does not detract from the seriousness of the underlying actions or reality.
      Just as the ANC takes no responsibility for its outrageous corruption and incompetence, the ANC electorate that voted them in again, takes no responsibility for so doing:
      Look at what the government they voted for has done to the country! Crippling strikes, violent protests; lack, misuse or no electricity, water, healthcare, sanitation, transport, policing. Look at the poverty! Look at our crime statistics! Look at the excessive amount of ANC ministers and what they earn, drive.
      You name it – we’ve got it!

      Why don’t the ANC electorate that voted them in again stop ‘protesting’ about everything and open their eyes?
      They should take exception to the how Zuma behaves; Nkandla, The Arms Deal, Guptagate, Schabier Shaik etc.: that he is getting away with whatever he can by appointing cronies into parliament, completely unsuited for the position, simply because they will protect him from facing the charges he should be facing.

      They should remember this when voting once again for a party with a record for being as inept, unscrupulous and dishonest as the ANC:
      “The first time you made a fool of me, shame on you
      “The second time you made a fool of me, shame on me.”

      They should be flattered at being called ‘clowns’.

    • Momma Cyndi

      I thought the drawing was insulting but I am still trying to figure out the ‘racism’ part. Satire (it is not a cartoon funny), is an attempt to make a political statement using art as a medium.

      To be perfectly honest, I don’t really think some of our ministers should be there. Taking the dictionary meaning, I think some of them fit the bill perfectly. Are they incompetent because of their skin colour? Of course not. Some of our ministers are highly competent and doing a great job.

      I’m just worried that this new habit of calling everything ‘racist’ is deferring attention from the real problems in an attempt to shoot the messenger.

    • zoo keeper

      What utter rubbish.

      Since when are only blacks ANC voters? Since when did blacks not vote for other parties?

      Its got nothing to do with race and is instead a valid, and searing comment on the majority of the voters, the ones who say “I’m voting ANC, not Zuma” for example.

      The cartoonist’s pen is not reserved for politicians alone you know?

      Those who voted for the ANC are as much of a target for satire as those they voted for. And after 20 years of scandal and robbing the taxpayer blind, its actually fair comment.

      Those who voted ANC are responsible for messes like Nkandla, e-tolls and so on. Why: obviously because they voted them back in despite knowing all about what a mess has been made by the ANC.

      There was absolutely nothing racist about the cartoon. Nothing.

      Those offended (ANC voters) are only being asked to take responsibility for their actions.

      To paraphrase Obi Won: “Who is more foolish? The fool, or the fool who votes for him”

    • Brian

      I don’t see the extrapolation the writer makes.

      The cartoonist chose the word clowns to describe the ANC cabinet. Perhaps he could have said incompetents but chose the word he felt appropriate. He then went on to say the people who voted for them were clowns. Again he could used other words such as ‘ gluttons for punishment” it ” shallow thinkers” or ” sheep” , but in any case chose clowns.
      Now not all the cabinet is black, and one could suggest that the white ones in it are the biggest clowns of the lot , but most of them are which is not the cartoonists fault. Similarly not all ANC voters are black but most probably are.
      So if the cartoonist wants to say the government and its voters ( whether it is true or not)!are clowns, how does he say that without being knee jerk accused of racism.

    • Dylan

      “Xego [a prominent ANC member] said he left the ‘boring mediocrity’
      of the Eastern Cape (EC) provincial
      legislature in 1999 to focus on his business
      ventures, adding, ‘I’m not a parliamentarian
      – I’m a money-maker’.”
      (quote from S Afr Med J 2014;104(4):268-269.)

      Seems like a clown to me!

    • Tsepho manime

      In the same week that this pathetic attempt as satire was published, we had Tony Ehrenreich call those who vote for the DA monkeys.
      Few seem to notice the hypocrisy from us black people. See, it’s not cool to offend us, call us clowns ….. But calling the majority of white voters, that’s ok.
      And as I watch my brothers screaming racism from the rooftops, nothing on Tony. Why?

      Reality is, if we demand respect. If we demand equality, we should be equally demanding of the same for all people. All races. We don’t, so we get what we deserve.

    • zeph

      “Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result”
      Though Albeit Einstein never said this maybe insanity would be preferred over clown?
      I think that you read to much into it…
      In the context of massive device delivery protests and unhappiness – I think the cartoon has a point.
      By the way; I call people arseholes every day…some are white, some are black.

    • zeph


    • Mariana De Leuca

      “We must be responsible for the words we use”.

      That should also apply to the labeling of black DA members as “tea girls”, “garden boys”, “rented blacks”, “puppets” and “coconuts”, and Helen Zille as a “white madam”. These are all derogatory names with a “racial hue” yet there is not the same degree of outrage?

    • cyberdog

      Wow, I’m not sure how someone could so totally and completely lose the plot. You start of by taking a passage from the most laughed at creationist propaganda. Then try turn this into your own twisted racist plot. If the word black appeared anywhere, then yeah, there could be some merit to your reasoning. The ‘clown’ comments are aimed squarely at the government and the attached political party. If the government only represents blacks, to the extent that saying anything about the government is purely a reflection against only blacks, then there is a much larger and a much more concerning fundamental disaster here. One that pales in comparison to calling the political elite and their followers clowns. You can spend the rest of eternity playing with words to try win favor, the simple truth is that racism is racism, not some plays on words. If the government is a representation of blacks only, then they are racists, as well as their followers. If you are as against racism as you claim, then here lies your problem, treat it accordingly.

    • Fongkong Tiger

      “five letters” …?

    • fraud

      @gary west, very WELL SAID!!

    • Brian Andrews

      This cartoon is a very unnecessary and untimely bit of foolishness and I fully agree that to do this at this time in our history is stupid to say the least. It is in my opinion a very damaging thing to have produced and has caused untold damage to our delicate society. I personally think that it is just really time to put a stop to all this over protection of the licence given to journalists who over exploit the situation and don’t bother to worry about the consequences of their destructive actions. South Africa has had a very violent past and when these sorts of arguments are promulgated they can destroy the little good that has painstakingly been achieved. There is no governing by the editors of these publications who ought to be monitoring the articles and giving sound advice to there underlings as all good CEO’s should do. I stand for a more responsible freedom of speech and not for the current chaos in journalism. E.g. the “spear” kind of freedom and this current cartoon regarding black people.

    • Alexo

      If this cartoon were about republicans in the US nobody would blink an eye. The outrage is manufactured and meaningless.

    • mark

      hey LL, I remember clearly that members of the DA have been called tea girls. In that statement there is a serious legacy of racism. Do you not have a problem with that because the words were shouted from black pro ANC mouths?

      If you want to be an authority on what is racist and what isn’t, perhaps you should increase your scope to stand against oppression of all forms. Standing in defence of the ANC only shows your propaganda status and affords you no credibility.

      So I suggest this should be the last we hear of you or change you stance to be pro South Africa and not just pro ANC.


    • Kgositsile Mokgosi

      Sometime in the mid 60’s a cartoon appeared in the Wits Student magazine in which a surprised baby was looking into a toilet bowl and saying, “Is that the Prime Minister?”. Wits was completely white then so was the Prime Minister. Not suure whether “racism” applied to the cartoon.
      If you go to Hyde Park in London on a Sunday you find people saying anything and everything about anybody some fitting the adjective offensive with no holds barred. The British are predominantly whites even worse in the past when this practice commenced.
      This extreme sensitivity to cartoons is just a reflection of the inferiority complex and how hamstrung some black people are. They have a victim mindset always feeling that they are being attacked/undermined. No word (except that of God if the bible is to be believed) can change you from what you are. Take a cue from Danie Alves the Barazilian footballer, who took the banana thrown at him and just ate it. Who got embarrassed in the episode?
      Just be confident of yourself and what you are about and let the so-called ‘insults’ slide like water on a duck’s back.
      As things stand no whiteman has or can have any power to make laws that will stifle you. Stop being worried in terms of affecting your life negatively the white man has been emasculated only your mindset thinks he still has the power. Steve Biko died for your dignity, remember that. Honour him by projecting yourself as well rounded and firmly entrenched on the ground of human…

    • Brianb

      Are you advocating full on censorship?

      Cartoonists and satirists tend to poke fun at events and situations which seem ridiculous.

      Sometimes they do offend but more often than not they highlight the truth and provoke thought.

      To turn this into a racial issue demonstrates prejudice. .

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      We gain so much more from tolerance and mutual understanding than we lose by the same myopic thinking of our former apartheid rulers which felt the need to pontificate to all and sundry what should be acceptable and what should be taboo.

      I still see the people who are making a big fuss out of comics as the clowns since they feel like playing Don Quixote with a windmill cartoon. If you are offended, pat yourself on the back and thank your lucky stars that we live in a country where we’re allowed to offend and be offensive.

      It’s puzzling to me how the ruling party who wrote this can have such a hard time to show an understanding of it:

      “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research”


    • zeph

      @Brian Andrews – funny how there is no word about the ‘insulted’ white ANC voters. Ah, but this does not matter…
      The hypocrisy of the self righteous stinks!

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    • Momma Cyndi

      Brian Andrews,

      Untimely? The ministers had just been announced. It would have been untimely if the cartoon was before they were announced or if their appointment was old news already. The whole purpose of political satire is to be relevant to current affairs.

      Our government often resembles a three ring circus where the clowns run rampant. If they are not ‘washing their hands’ of their duties, they are denying it even is their duty or maintaining that they ‘never asked for it’. Buffoons and dolts is a synonym for clowns (which oft seems fitting descriptions of our parliamentary sessions). I have never in my entire life heard the word ‘clowns’ being a synonym (or an euphemism) for black people.

      I wonder why ‘The Spear’ picture is so well know but the (in my opinion, better) paintings by Ayanda Mabula that came before it are not?

    • zeph

      Please comment in light of the George Bizos ruling?

    • Joseph Coates

      Cartoonists see two sides of the scenario-sometimes the funnier side of life itself, or- the tongue-in-cheek gesture portraying the truth behind the actual goings-on whatever issue is presented. Where is our freedom of expression heading? Regardless, be it written or vocal or, through the eyes of a cartoonist. About time, as South Africans, we laugh at ourselves by what we see & hear. Other countries, Prime ministers should they err like any human, or, get caught with their fingers in the cookie jar . Stop being sour grapes and pull this country together by seeing the lighter side of life by preventing more mass action, corruption, poverty reoccurring in the next five years or more.

    • Will the Doctor

      So what the author proposes is a loss of freedom of speech. What he says is that whites cannot criticize blacks.