Editorial cartooning must be one of the most difficult jobs out there. Not only must the cartoonist be technically adept when it comes to caricature, he or she also has to find the humour in situations that often, on the surface, aren’t especially funny. Day in and day out, cartoonists have to generate ideas and make calls as to whether to reject or pursue them. Day in and day out, cartoonists must be creative and clever on a platform that gives them immediate access to the public and which, precisely because of that, opens them up to public scrutiny.
What happens when cartoonists must balance public sensitivities against personal critique?
“The toxicity of our current political climate makes it more difficult to be hard-hitting without self-censoring,” Zapiro writes in response to the outcry over his cartoon depicting NPA head Shaun Abrahams as a monkey and Jacob Zuma as an organ-grinder. “While racism is something I have always fought against, some recent reactions to some of my cartoons appear to show that the situation is quickly reaching the point where self-censorship will be the order of the day.”
I want to take a step back by looking at an industry I know only too well; one that must also churn out cleverness and creativity for public consumption. The challenge faced by cartoonists is not dissimilar to the one encountered by the copywriters and art directors I work with in advertising. Every day, they receive briefs tasking them to come up with interesting ways to talk about what are often not very interesting things. It’s nowhere near as intense or pressured as cartooning, but it too calls for assessing creative ideas and then deciding whether to take them further or bomb them then and there.
Part of my job as a communication strategist is to filter the ideas based on whether I think they are relevant and insightful to the target audience – and also, whether they are likely to trigger criticism that distracts from the message the brand is trying to convey. It’s all part of due diligence when it comes to communicating with the public on a highly visible platform.
This is the point: that just because you have an idea does not mean it should see the light of day. And just because an idea is rejected through self-censorship does not mean that we live in a world in which freedom of expression has been curtailed to the point where we should be wringing our hands in despair.
The moment I saw the Zapiro cartoon lampooning Jacob Zuma and Shaun Abrahams as an organ-grinder and his performing monkey I thought: hier kom kak. “Duuuuuude,” I wanted to say to him. “Just because you can go there doesn’t mean you should.”
“Why I refuse to self-censor” is the title of Zapiro’s defence of the cartoon, which is misleading because Zapiro self-censors all the time. He says as much here:
“I sometimes decide whether some negative responses to a cartoon may outweigh the impact of the message I’m trying to get across.”
Then he adds:
“In this instance, as with the many cartoons before this, I felt that the metaphor would be easily intelligible to readers across the board and that the two figures in the cartoon offset each other, one being human and the other not.”
I can see why Zapiro would have been tempted to use the metaphor of the organ-grinder and his monkey. State organ … it’s an obvious first port of call, the first thing that would have come up in a brainstorm. If he were a copywriter in an ad agency, I’d have pointed out the potential problems with the idea and asked him to keep pushing. “If Shaun Abrahams were white,” I would have said, “the idea would be fine, even if the metaphor of the organ-grinder and his monkey is possibly not that well understood by most South Africans in 2016. But this idea has to die because we all know that a white cartoonist cannot depict a black person as a monkey. It’s just too loaded. The message will get lost.”
Which is precisely what happened.
In advertising, we also recognise that the public does not get to read the PowerPoint deck explaining the strategy before they see an ad. Because of who he is and who publishes him, Zapiro enjoys the kind of legitimacy that inevitably exposes his work to intense scrutiny. He assumes – wrongly – that the South African public is alert to nuance and highly tuned to his particular use of irony, and that nobody in their right mind would read anything into his work other than what he explicitly intended. I don’t think Zapiro is a racist, but I do think he was naïve to think that many readers would look at the cartoon and see anything but a racist depiction of a monkey.
I also think that sounding the alarm over self-censorship is a red herring. We all self-censor in lots of ways, every single day, every time we speak, or tweet, or compose an email to a colleague. Most of us do not blurt out the first thoughts that occur to us because we recognise that we may cause anger, or hurt someone’s feelings – or be misunderstood, because we can’t expect others to know exactly what is going on inside our heads. We assess the likely impact of saying what comes to mind, and then we make compromises. This is a pragmatic response to living in a diverse society where differing narratives are in a constant state of tension. It applies to all of us – even cartoonists who pushed the boundaries during apartheid.
No more monkeys, please.