Jonathan Berger
Jonathan Berger

In defence of Zapiro

At their recent national convention in St Paul, Minnesota, the Republicans were quick to blame the “liberal media” for many of the ills of society. So too were their supporters in the conservative press. In response to questions regarding the suitability of John McCain’s running mate, for example, Jeffrey Kuhner of the Washington Times — not to be confused with the Washington Post — wrote that the “liberal media are determined to tarnish the reputation of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin”. Interestingly, the Economist — beautifully written but somewhat conservative — viewed McCain’s decision as raising “serious questions about his judgment”.

In South Africa, we too like to shoot the messenger. Take the ANC’s response to Zapiro’s most recent Sunday Times cartoon as an example. While paying lip service to press freedom as “one of the cornerstones of any democracy”, our ruling party claims that the mere publication of the “disgusting cartoon” constitutes “the abuse of press freedom”. Long story short, the ANC hopes that the “ranting dictator who finds joy in manipulating the truth” — better known to the rest of us as Mondli Makhanya — gets replaced, calling on the public to ensure that he “answer[s] for the abuse of press freedom by the Sunday Times“. A consumer boycott, perhaps?

Of course, those familiar with this particular war of attrition would remember Essop Pahad’s “very strong personal view” — which followed in the wake of the exposé of the minister of health’s drinking habits — that the state should pull its adverts from the weekly rag. The legal issue — whether an organ of state may decide to withdraw advertising from a newspaper solely on the basis that it disapproves of the publication’s content — is before the Grahamstown High Court. In that case, Rhodes University’s Grocott’s Mail is seeking to overturn a local government decision to boycott the twice-weekly publication.

But, as always (and as I always note), I digress — back to the Zapiro cartoon. I can understand why many may view it as depicting Jacob Zuma as a rapist. He’s sporting his showerhead, his pants are undone and a woman is pinned down in front of him. His comrades are egging him on: “Go for it, boss!” But it’s not just any woman. It’s a representation of the justice system, and the showerhead is widely understood as a reference to the comments about showers and HIV prevention (not the rape trial itself) and those pinning the woman down have all been complicit (or worse) in the attacks on the judiciary. Crudely put, the system is being screwed as part of a power play.

The question is not whether it “insults the integrity of the secretary general of the ANC … and [other] alliance leaders”. Of course it’s an attack on the organisations’ leadership. Rather, it’s whether the attack constitutes fair comment. As edgy as the cartoon may be, in my view — for whatever that’s worth — it passes the test. The ANC may have “repeatedly stated … [its] commitment to uphold and defend the Constitution, and the rule of law”, but it is disingenuous to assert that it has never attacked the judiciary but has rather “criticised unfair treatment of our president … in a normal public discourse of a democratic society”.

Normal public discourse in a democratic society does not, for example, include the ruling party marching to courts and police stations calling for the withdrawal of criminal charges. Nor does it entail labelling judges as counter-revolutionary. Most certainly, it does not include characterising the decision to lodge a complaint against Justice John Hlophe as mere preparation for a ruling against Zuma. “We expected this,” said Blade Nzimande shortly after the Constitutional Court had dismissed Zuma’s appeals to set aside the search-and-seizure operations crucial to the prosecution’s case. “The whole Hlophe matter … was actually preparing us for this.”

To be fair, Zapiro’s cartoon does push the boundaries of what we may consider acceptable. But so too did the one portraying the president’s official biographer and off-tune praise singer as a brown-noser, not to mention the cartoon depicting the former Israeli prime minister as a fascist and the one in which the minister of health crucified people living with Aids. Speaking of her, who could ever forget “Lemon is not a vegetable?” It’s the nature of the medium — it’s supposed to do what it does. It’s not meant to make us feel warm and fuzzy and patriotic and ready to take up arms to defend the leader. It’s designed to get us talking. At least we’re now talking.