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Why, Zapiro?

An open letter to Zapiro from Sandisiwe Vilakazi

Why, Zapiro?

During any kind of disaster there is always room for criminal elements to take hold. Looting during floods, xenophobic attacks and marches is a common enough occurrence. So it is with malicious intent during times of change. South Africa is going through trying times and journalists are struggling to find their feet, place and role. The real journalists, that is.

Other elements are using this uncertainty and vulnerability to strike low blows unseen, protected by the mob think affecting journalism today. Everyone else is doing it, and so should we, it goes. Everyone is slaying Jacob Zuma and so should we.

Zapiro, your cartoon (Sunday Times, September 7 2008) depicting Zuma about to rape justice was below the belt (and the pun is not for fun). Your cartoon was a thoroughly personal attack on the man’s character.

Let me explain why, this time, even I cannot defend you.

1. You made an unfair reference to the trial in which Zuma was declared, in fact, proven innocent. The shower-head signifier is intended to identify him as that “sex shower” man in the rape case. If you dispute this, then why do you place it on Zuma’s figure every time (for example, your “Zapiro’s ANC ABC” in the Mail & Guardian on September 17 2007)? Under “Z” you had “Z is for Zuma — if he wins, we’re all f*@#&!!” Zuma is depicted there, shower-head hovering, holding a machine gun. That was freedom of expression; I let that one go.

2. You have it in for Zuma, everyone knows that. It is your freedom of expression, so I’ll let that one go too. In an interview with Koelble and Robins (2007) you said: “My unflattering portrayal of Jacob Zuma is entirely based on actual quotations of his where he has said outlandish, chauvinistic and ignorant things about Aids, women, and the rule of law, among other things. I was once an admirer of Jacob Zuma. I admired his commitment during the apartheid era, his pleasant personality, and his ability to establish rapport with people. I’m afraid that those qualities have been overshadowed by his recently displayed attitudes, his inability to control his own finances … As a cartoonist and therefore a commentator, I don’t have to hold back if I feel these things strongly, which I do. I think negative characterisation is justified.” Yes, Zapiro, it is justified in general. But …

3. You found it appropriate to use rape as the metaphor to carry your message. You thought it appropriate to liken Zuma’s legal battle to a rape scene. My issue is: Why rape, Zapiro? Of all scenarios, rape! Rape again. A very low blow, even for you.

4. I imagine that you sat and decided that in the interest of the right of South Africans to know, let me take someone’s father and depict him with his belt undone in front of a bound woman. You drew the cartoon, looked it over and felt satisfied that it would drive the message home. For those of us who are visually literate, the message was clear. Zuma was intent on forcing himself on this helpless woman held down by his accomplices (let the youth and communist leagues deal with you directly on the depiction of the accomplices, ayeye).

5. I am saddened because you have now succeeded in linking this man’s legacy to your primitive view of Africans. Your cartoon may as well have accompanied David Bullard’s article “Uncolonised Africa wouldn’t know what it was missing” (Sunday Times, April 2008).

6. At that precise moment when we the readers decoded the sign that is your cartoon, we were automatically required to make sense of the symbolism contained. We had to — if we wanted to make sense of the cartoon — refer to the underlying narrative of our South African story, which not only has the good and the bad but the very ugly too. We had to recognise our vulnerability to the brutality of hijackers, road-ragers and rapists too. At that precise moment of recognition we did not see Zuma the politician, but a brute. You know as well as I do that you had hundreds of other metaphors at your disposal, but still you chose the rape one.

You people — yes, I said it, you people — are jumping on the “let’s criticise the ANC/government bandwagon”, to which you are entitled, but not like this. We are busy marching while you are looting shops, slinging mud balls and talking nonsense.

Do not make politics so personal; at worst they are, but we do not need that right now. You are mixing issues and our Sunday paper is not your platform to be crazy and spiteful. You are not alone; Business Day has increased the size of its cartoons, and slowly but surely its cartoonist is getting bolder. I have my eye on you, sir.

Back to Zapiro. Even though Yalo’s cartoons in the Sowetan beat yours hands down in the relevance stakes (in my humble opinion), I am not advocating for your dismissal for you are still the leader of the pack. Your “Lying King” cartoon (Mail & Guardian, October 11 2007) was brilliant. Not that original, but absolutely brilliant.

I believe that satirical cartoons are an essential, if not the purest, part of media discourse. I know you know it too. You said: “I feel there is an important role for cartooning in South Africa at the moment. We as cartoonists are being taken more seriously than ever, as evidenced by Zuma’s suing me and also by the recognition of cartooning in journalism circles. Cartoons are moving off the pages of the newspapers and into radio and television debates.”

Yes, cartoons are the past and the future but bear in mind, Zapiro, that the point is to build our country. No journalist is above the news; no politician is above politics. People come and go. Let’s do our jobs and keep it moving.

I’m watching you.

And hey, Zapiro, I know this stuff. I collect these cartoons and I am currently reading for a master’s degree in journalism at Wits University.

Sandisiwe Vilakazi writes in her personal capacity