Drawing on history

2011-04-26 00:00

Pietermaritzburg-born writer and cartoonist Andy Mason recently published a history of South African cartooning titled 'What's So Funny?'. He lives in Cape Town, working as an editor while teaching on the side, and spoke to THARUNA DEVCHAND about his book

HOW did you get into cartooning?

I never really considered cartooning as a career until I got to university. But while I was there I got involved in the student press and started drawing comics for Dome, the student paper at what was then the University of Natal. I was hugely influenced by the underground cartooning movement of the late sixties, because the emphasis there wasn't so much on how well you could draw, but on telling a story in a straightforward, honest­, no-holds-barred kind of way.

What sparked the idea of What's So Funny?

In 1999, I went back to university to do an MA in media and cultural studies after a 20-year break from academia. The subject of my dissertation was the cartooning of the transition — I looked at the period 1985 to 1994, especially at whether cartoons and comics had had any effect­ on the political transition process. And I found that they did have an effect. Not huge, but not insignificant either. The book grew out of this research. It took me the best part of a decade to research and write it.

Do you think that audience responses to cartoons have changed in the past 30 years?

Yes and no. In earlier periods, before television and digital media, comics and cartoons played a much more important role as they were, in those days, still a cutting-edge form of popular visual communication. But on the other hand, cartoonists are able to say and draw things today that were simply not allowed in the old days.

Has the medium become more popular?

Cartoons appear in newspapers and magazines, so by definition they only reach people who have access to these media. In South Africa, this is quite a small percentage of the population. So in that sense they aren't popular in the way that television and radio-based products are popular. But within the newspaper and magazine-reading public, yes, they are extremely popular, and within this group they do appeal to a diverse readership, since the newspaper-reading public is so much more diverse than it used to be in the bad old apartheid days.

Are today's South African cartoonists becoming a more multiracial bunch?

Unfortunately, the demographic spread of South African cartooning still reflects patterns inherited from the apartheid era. I find this very disappointing, especially as it's a problem that will take years to solve, as it takes years of work to become a good cartoonist. But we do have a new generation of very good cartoonists, such as the Sowetan's Sifiso Yalo, and Wilson Mgobhozi, who draws for Independent Newspapers. These guys are both very good and there are a lot of younger wannabe cartoonists who are inspired by them. The most important thing, of course, is for editors to take rookie cartoonists on and invest in them. But unfortunately the opposite tends to happen. The current trend of syndicating a single cartoonist across a number of different papers in a group is killing political cartooning, not just locally, but the world over.

How hard is it to become established as a cartoonist?

Unless you are naturally supremely gifted, it's a long, tough journey. But, if you do make it, it's hugely rewarding. Who doesn't want to spend their days doing the thing that they love most in the world?

Do you think that there is a line that should not be crossed when it comes to cartooning?

This topic is back in the news, with the court case going ahead in which President Jacob Zuma is suing Zapiro­ for the infamous Rape of Lady Justice cartoon. Obviously, as in every aspect of life, there is a line that should not be crossed. Did Zapiro­ cross that line? I personally do not think so. We are extremely fortunate to live in a country that has a superb Constitution and Bill of Rights, which grants us a high level of freedom of expression. And the debate around freedom of expression is raging at the moment, especially with the Julius Malema hate-speech case in the news alongside the Zapiro-Zuma legal contest. Does Zapiro have the right to draw tough and angry cartoons? Do Malema and his supporters have the right to continue singing their tough and angry struggle songs? These questions are not unrelated. We are a young democracy and we are grappling with hugely important issues. There are always arguments on both sides and as a scholar­ in this field I am less likely to take sides than to try to listen to both sides. But, all things considered, our Constitution says that freedom of expression is ours. It's not something we should ever consider letting go of.

Cartoonists are anthropologists in a way. Do you agree and do you think that there is a certain responsibility that comes with that?

This is a question I've grappled with in my book. In fact, there's a scene in my book in which Zapiro has an argument with an anthropologist who says that the cartoonist's intention is not important: the meaning that people take from the cartoon is what's important. Albie Sachs said the same thing a few weeks ago during his speech at the Time of The Writer event in Durban, where he criticised Zapiro's Rape of Justice cartoon, describing it as deeply hurtful to millions of people. Now I know Zapiro well enough to know that he did not intend to hurt people with that cartoon. His intention was to shock people into confronting a political issue that he saw as being of burning urgency. And he succeeded. Can a cartoonist be held responsible for the meanings that people attribute to his or her work?

Looking at South Africa as a compilation of cartoons, do you think that South Africa is improving as a country?

I'm always amazed that people can ask this question, as though South Africa today is even comparable with the evil, inhuman system that prevailed during the apartheid years. Looking back at the history of political cartooning in this country, it's plain to see that we came from something very bad, something that nearly destroyed us. The problems that we face in this country today are those that face the rest of the world. Greed, corruption and ethnic conflict are global problems. Who is the new 'other' in South African cartooning?

The essence of "the other", as Edward­ Said argued in his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism, is "us and them" thinking. We still have a lot of that kind of thinking in this country. But we've also seen how it momentarily disappeared during the Madiba years [the euphoric national consensus period that followed the 1994 transition] and again during the Football World Cup. So this "othering" is not a fixed, inviolable thing, it can change.

My book shows how, for hundreds of years, South Africans of different races have seen each other as different versions of a menacing, frightening "other", in most cases, as a projection of inner fears. Cartoonists don't invent the stereotypes that give rise to this — but by giving visual form to these stereotypes they do reveal them in all their shocking nakedness.

How do South African cartoons rank overseas?

Our cartoonists have always stood shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world. Great cartoonists of yesteryear like Abe Berry, Jock Leyden and David Marais were internationally renowned. Today Zapiro­ is ranked among the best in the world.

Our best cartoonists, going all the way back to Die Burger's Daniel Boonzaier in the early years of the 20th century, have always been courageous, committed and uncompromising.

Long may it last.

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