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Right-wing Zapiro, or a guy who gets it right?

The country’s visual conscience corrected his balance with his revised cartoon on Sunday that switched the Jacob Zuma rape of justice image, with members of the Thabo Mbeki camp. Both, according to his accompanying caption, are valid.

I analysed this development for the Daily Dispatch as regards his basic message. Which is: South Africa needs to mobilise public opinion for a credible and independent prosecution service and judiciary, and to see off threats from those who inclined to reject or exploit the system.

But what Zapiro’s images don’t really do is distinguish between the different styles of Mbeki (the urbane seducer) and Zuma (the mshini wam singer). They also don’t differentiate in regard to the discrediting of the National Prosecution Agency (for which Mbeki is blamed), and the judiciary as such (branded, until last Friday, as counter-revolutionary by the Zuma people).

Cartoons are of course a simplified visual statement, reducing these issues to the shared image of an undifferentiated gang “rapist” and a singular “justice system”. That’s the power of caricatures: if they were more complex, they’d have less impact. All we need to do is to place them in a more complex context.

For folk reading racism into the Zapiro cartoons, they’re adding a layer of complexity that was surely unintended by the artist. His specific message is the rape of justice, not a generalised one that black men are inherent rapists or intrinsic wearers of caps.

Certainly, Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya, who famously fired columnist David Bullard for racism, does not seem to have seen racism lurking in the image.

That’s not to say that Makhanya, or other editors, would publish any image. In 1992, I blocked a cartoon by Zapiro for the New Era magazine I was editing at the time – on the grounds that it could provoke Inkatha killers to attack vendors of the publication. (The cartoon was of Mangosuthu Buthelezi drawn as a violent volcano, spewing spears and body parts from his mouth).

Zapiro himself is sensitive to the pressures on editors. He wrote about this for a section in a forthcoming book, The Extraordinary Editor, to be published in October by the South African National Editors Forum.

In his piece, the cartoonist says that most editors he has worked for have seen controversy around his work as good for the paper. For his part, “while rude, risqué or extremely hard-hitting cartoons are bound to offend some readers, this is a risk worth taking.”

His sentiment is that the occasional causing of offence is part of the role of cartoons, which are by tradition irreverent.

Zapiro also points out that editors can suggest a little discretion in a rude cartoon or perhaps the use of a different word in the text. “It’s better to do this during the preliminary stage of the cartoon than to censor the final drawing.” He concludes: “But the editor does have the final say.”

In an unknowingly prescient twist, he observes: “Cartoonists certainly benefit from feedback after publication on how their work has been received at the paper and by readers, especially if some readers’ views didn’t make it to the letters page.”

He’s sure got a deluge of feedback on his latest work. No doubt, his theme will be a work in progress – and as such, constitute a service by the forth estate helping to safeguard the third.