Tribute to an icon

2014-10-01 00:00

THE next month will see the curtain fall on an era at The Witness as our resident political cartoonist Stidy retires.

Stidy is an institution at The Witness whose creativity knows no apparent bounds.

His imminent retirement draws to a conclusion a remarkable nearly 25-year career at the paper, following his appointment as the paper’s first resident political cartoonist back in February 1990.

I have been here for only a single year in his long career at The Witness but it is an honour to pay tribute to this icon of the paper and, as a result, I regret that my tribute cannot be as fulsome as his contribution deserves.

In his time here, Anthony Stidolph, as Stidy is known in the real world, has been acknowledged as one of the best in the business, having won a prestigious Vodacom Cartoonist of the Year Award in 2010.

He has produced several collections of his work in book form and has exhibited on several occasions.

If you were at this year’s Hilton Arts Festival you would have been treated to a Stidy exhibition capturing the scope and breadth of his career here.

When I visited it I was fascinated to see the diversity of those drawn to view it; from schoolboys to an older generation who lingered over his drawings, testimony to how consistently original and provocative his work has been over these many years.

Two Stidys from 2011 hang above my desk and capture his cutting eye well. One shows a furtive Jacob Zuma slipping from dark alleys, tearing down roads, leaping over fences and swimming across a river, as two observers in the panel note: “Oh that? That’s just our president trying to avoid having to respond to the Public Protector’s Report”.

The other depicts protesters in two almost identical panels, one lot protesting “Down with Mbeki”, the other protesting “Down with Zuma”, while ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe lurks in the background whining: “This is unacceptable. The ANC needs to find its values again in which leadership is respected and democratic debate is the order of the day instead of threats and power battles …”

Three years later, we could consider repeating both cartoons and they would be almost as relevant today as they were then.

But my personal favourite over the year I have been here is the one he produced for the edition in which we recorded Nelson Mandela’s demise.

It shows Madiba walking off towards the horizon beneath the arc of a colourful rainbow as the world waves goodbye. Its pathos perfectly reflected that moment in our history.

There’s an implicit tribute in the drawing too, coming as it does from an artist whose career has been built on lampooning and pricking the egos of the powerful, and which makes it extra special in my eyes.

Stidy works in a wonderful niche in the newspaper industry that is arguably the only part of our business that has prevailed against the digital storm.

He represents a small band of commentators with a rare skill, the ability to beat the power of 1 000 words with a piece of original art almost every day.

In writing this column I did some reading on the history of political cartooning and was amazed to discover that its pedigree can be traced back to the 1500s and Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation movement.

Luther used an early form of cartooning to popularise his ideas on reform in the Catholic Church as he reached out to the illiterate peasantry of Europe to bolster his numbers.

It clearly worked, as hundreds of years later, Benjamin Franklin produced what is acknowledged to be the first political cartoon in America in 1754.

It was called “Join or Die” and called for a union of the American colonies, the first steps towards the formation of the United States.

Anyone who doubts the power of a cartoonist to mould public opinion only needs to say Zapiro and I defy you to keep the image of our president and a shower head out of your mind.

Five hundred years after Martin Luther used cartoons to change the course of history, it is heartening to see this form of commentary still thriving, and I’m not about to let it disappear from the pages of The Witness.

So, even as Stidy prepares for formal retirement, we are not letting him go and put his feet up!

I’m glad to say that we are in talks to keep his work a regular feature in The Witness and I’m confident he will not be disappearing from these pages any time soon.

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