Zapped by Zapiro

2014-06-08 06:00

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In the early 1980s, Jonathan Shapiro quit his studies in architecture at the University of Cape Town to turn to activism and graphic art.

Little did he know at the time that his drawings would end up becoming a cornerstone of the new democratic South Africa.

This week, 55-year-old Shapiro, better known as Zapiro, the country’s leading cartoonist, launched his retrospective book – DemoCrazy, SA’s Twenty-Year Trip – to applause and laughter inside a packed Cape Town City Hall.

The book features more than 450 cartoons on 247 pages. In the book’s preface, Shapiro says that late statesman Nelson Mandela endured his lampooning with “good ­humour” and Thabo Mbeki “never threatened him”. However, he bemoans scores of censorship lawsuits brought against him by President Jacob Zuma, none of which ever actually went to court.

City Press joined Shapiro for coffee at his studio beneath the home in Oranjezicht that he shares with his photographer wife Karina on the slopes of Table Mountain.

The bright, white newly refurbished studio is lined with books ranging from Richard Calland’s The Zuma Years to Roald Dahl’s BFG.

He lovingly points out a collection of Tintin books by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi (who wrote under the pen name Hergé) and scores of French Asterix comics, illustrated by Albert Uderzo.

Shapiro relays how, as a 21-year-old, he found an address for Uderzo in a Parisian library and ended up knocking on the cartoonist’s door late one evening. The two men had an encouraging chat.

This audacity – or perhaps bravery – would come to be the mark of Shapiro’s career.

He admits to becoming absorbed in work to the point of being a “maniac”, but says Karina brings balance into his life.

They got married in 1988 in New York, where he was on a Fulbright Scholarship at the School of Visual Arts.

After the ceremony, they had wedding pictures taken at the top of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan, where they quaffed two bottles of ­bubbly with friends.

The Shapiros have two children. Nina (14) is at school in Cape Town and Tevya (18) is on a gap year in New York. The ­teenager worked as a waiter at a local restaurant to pay for his plane ticket to the Big Apple, Shapiro says.

Looking back, the thing nearest to his heart is how his work has contributed to shaping discourse in South Africa.

“When my drawings appear in a school syllabus or as part of a lobby in Parliament, that to me is enormous,” said Shapiro.

Personally, he didn’t like last week’s controversial Dr Jack & Curtis cartoon, which outraged many when it was published on the Eyewitness News website.

“I am defending the cartoonists, but I’m not defending that cartoon,” he said. “I hope they learn from it. There is a ­difference between censorship and taking the feelings of the public into account.”

These tough balancing acts are familiar for Shapiro.

Addressing the audience at the DemoCrazy launch, former Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya – now with City Press – highlighted the controversial Lady Justice rape cartoon, published in the Sunday Times on September 7 2008.

Makhanya said the cartoon was still relevant today: “There is a crisis happening at the National Prosecuting Authority, which has had its fourth head under President Zuma,” he said. “This is directly due to the rape of Lady Justice by Zuma. We could run that cartoon today. It will still mean the same thing.”

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