Ferial Haffajee
Ferial Haffajee

Cartoons speak the truth in our society

From the time the drawings of the Prophet Muhammad set the world alight, it’s been clear that cartooning — the right to draw — will be at the epicentre of media freedom debates.

South Africa’s been a tinder-box too since ANC president Jacob Zuma sued Zapiro for defamation for attaching a shower to the head of any image he draws of the big man of our time.

The issue therefore is not merely the monumental failing of humour that this week’s cartoon has provoked in the big red men who are angry that they have been drawn as part of a lynch-mob, aiding the rape of justice by Zuma.

Of greater concern is the ignorance of the role we give to cartooning in modern liberal societies, such as we like to claim we are.

They are our iimbongi, the patriots who speak truth to power when necessary. They are the court jesters who make us laugh and then cry when we realise that what’s been drawn is often the fundamental truth or a portent of what might come to pass if we are not vigilant. And so it is with this drawing.

To invest such power in the pens of cartoonists requires a social contract between the public and the satirist, and that means that we roll with the punches; we laugh until we cry but we do not say that what’s good for the gander is not good enough for the top goose.

Lining the walls of Cosatu House is a range of, yes, framed Zapiro cartoons that Zwelinzima Vavi commissioned and which he shows visitors with some pride. They capture the various moments when our largest union federation has spoken truth to power in strikes or when it has stood up for democracy in Zimbabwe when others have been lily-livered, or when the man with the funny pen has let rip on the conservative economics of the former United Democratic Front activist turned Finance Minister Trevor Manuel.

Who can forget Zapiro’s drawing of Manuel, as Maggie Thatcher (a popular caricature the finance minister must have hated and which Vavi loves), doing a strip-tease as his budgets began to loosen the purse strings?

Zapiro can make you blush and he can make you mad and he can upset apple carts. A while ago, he upset one of mine when he kept drawing the SABC’s head of news, Snuki Zikalala, as a puppy with the name tag “Snuki, PhD, Bulgaria”. I hate it because Zikalala’s a colleague and there is an anti-communist snobbery inherent in the nickname that first originated in the Mail & Guardian at a time I thought the paper went right wing. I told him this and Zapiro told me where to get off. The cartoon is a sacred space and believing in media freedom is not a tap you can switch on and off, he said.

I learnt a lesson then, and know those who call for Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya’s head also do not understand that the relationship between cartoonists and editors is very different to that between us and our journalists. It is a far less hands-on relationship and we give up space to the cartoonists who are contracted.

To make it any other way is to begin to erode the special role of a cartoonist in public democratic life.

Cartooning needs to be neither accurate nor truthful, the measures of other forms of journalism. It is an art that is meant to push the envelope, to cause discomfort, to exaggerate threat and mock most everything. It ensures that we do not forget, which is why Zapiro sticks to the Zuma shower. He may be the top gun now but let’s not forget the shower incident, he reminds us every day in his work. As talk of a political deal to get the ANC president out of his political jam grows apace, this work of memory is important.

In the pantheon of free expression, cartooning has a special place. The greater the freedom of the cartoonist, the higher the democratic quotient of a society. And so, what might it say that after all the years of vicious pillory, President Thabo Mbeki has never sued Zapiro nor had his strongmen try to break his crayons?

Yet we now have a man who wants to be president who has sued our national cartoonist and whose strongmen are up in arms. By the threats and bilious anger of this week they have metaphorically stomped on his chalk. It is an ominous moment.

Perhaps they are so angry because the cartoon makes them look in the mirror to see an image they would rather not? For what is it when South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande says the country will be taken to the brink if Zuma is tried? What is it when Vavi says he will bring his workers out on strike if Zuma goes to trial; when he threatens a workers rebellion should Zuma be found guilty? What is it when ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema says he will kill if Zuma is found guilty? And what is the year-long campaign against senior judges, and the stated view that they are counter-revolutionary?

All of this is a systematic erosion of the justice system; a violation so severe that it is a rape. And it’s good that someone’s had the courage to draw it, if not to say it. Like their leader, the big red men should take a cold shower and have a laugh.

Captured visually
Sometimes, Jonathan Shapiro can get dark and brooding about his country or our craft and it is then that his work is at its most powerful.

His tendency, usually, is to poke fun; he is our national funny bone, a guarantee that on Fridays and on Sundays in the Mail & Guardian and the Sunday Times there will be a national tonic, something to make you grin, if wryly.

Sometimes he is darker and he can make you incredibly uneasy. I think of three that have all involved images of violation, their lines so clear and so black that the intent is one of absolute clarity.

There is this week’s image with justice lying sideways about to be raped, her scales lying forlornly by her side. There was the one of the journalist with the television camera-head (the symbol of truth) being raped by an American soldier — a trenchant critique of embedded journalism.

And there was the pungent image of the author Ronald Suresh Roberts with his head up the presidential arse as Thabo Mbeki read a copy of the biography he was about to launch.

When he is sad, Zapiro can make us all weep as he did when the xenophobic attacks strangled the land. His simple image of founding father Nelson Mandela and the archbishop Desmond Tutu crying as blood dripped down the flag captured a country in turmoil as no words could.