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A dick too far?

Given how crudely offensive it was, the reaction to the Zapiro “dick” cartoon has been surprisingly muted. No doubt, this is in part due to everyone being “penised-out” in the wake of the Brett Murray affair. After all, what more is there to say on the subject? Another reason, perhaps, is that at least Murray’s work, mediocre though it was, represented a bona fide attempt at political commentary through an artistic medium and as such created a genuine intellectual space in which serious discussion could take place. With his latest offering, by contrast, Mr Shapiro merely came across as a spiteful, attention-seeking schoolboy who finally went too far, and even his many supporters seem disinclined to come to his defence.

It all reminds me a bit about the bread-throwing incident in Herman Charles Bosman’s semi-fictional prison memoir Cold Stone Jug. In summary, this begins as a spontaneous mass protest against bad prison food, with inmates hurling their bread through the grille into the hall below. Thereafter, there is much heated debate among the prisoners as to which of them was the first to throw his piece of bread and thereby instigate the memorable demonstration. It is generally agreed that either Alec the Ponce or Bluecoat Verdamp should get the credit. While this controversy rages, a third convict named Winslow, anxious to boost his own standing, tries to spark off a second such demonstration by throwing his bread into the hall a second time. On this occasion, however, no-one follows his example, making him look exceedingly foolish (and also resulting in his being severely disciplined). Zapiro’s dick-too-far cartoon, given how everyone is by now heartily sick of debates around the president’s dangly bits, was similarly ill-timed.

One of the more interesting comments elicited by this affair appeared in a Numsa statement condemning the cartoon and read as follows: “We can come to no other conclusion, but to accept that some White progressives of yesteryear have become racist and colonialist in their outlook since the advent of our new democratic dispensation”. The reference obviously includes Zapiro himself, who gained his “Struggle” credentials during the 1980s.

It is indeed quite striking how bitterly many former progressives — and contrary to what Numsa says, they are by no means all white — have turned against what was once regarded as the party of liberation par excellence. Underpinning this to a large extent is simple disillusionment, given how more difficult it is to deal with disappointed hopes than if one’s expectations had been more realistic.

When the ANC Centenary Flame roadshow came to Johannesburg last month, the theme for one of the days was “celebrating the contribution of white democrats”. The day culminated in a short ceremony at the Great Park Synagogue, hosted by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies. The board’s national director accepted the symbolic hand-over of the Flame on behalf of the Jewish community and Rabbi Dovid Hazdan paid tribute to the ANC for the central role it had played in bringing non-racial democracy to South Africa.

Agreeing to host the event was not a straight-forward decision for the SAJBD. As a strictly apolitical body, it could not be seen to be endorsing any particular party, let alone one that today carries with it so much negative baggage (not least of which is a foreign policy that is clearly inimical to Jewish interests). At least a degree of fall-out from the general Jewish community was expected, although this never happened in the end.

I was in attendance at the ceremony, and was unexpectedly moved by it all. From the solemn march of the military escort into the synagogue, through to the short dignified speeches and the actual passing over of the Flame, I was conscious throughout of what the ANC had achieved in its first hundred years. It was to this proud record that we were paying tribute, and we were remembering, too, the many great people of yesteryear whose heroism had made it all possible. For all his shortcomings Jacob Zuma, who spent 10 years on Robben Island and another 15 years in exile, was one of them.

Then was then and now is now. The ANC cannot count indefinitely on retaining the loyalty of its supporters because of its past achievements, and its present-day failings are seriously undermining that legacy. That being said, criticism, even when necessarily robust, should remain within the bounds of basic decency.


  • David Saks

    David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.