Zapping Zuma

2008-12-20 00:00

AFRICAN National Congress president Jacob Zuma has demanded R7 million for alleged damage to his reputation and dignity from cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro, backing the demand with a threat of court action. The offending cartoon portrayed Zuma apparently about to rape the female figure that traditionally symbolises justice.

If Shapiro rejects Zuma’s demand, the ANC leader should think twice before proceeding to court. As a form of criticism that uses barbed humour to point out folly, satire is part and parcel of democracy. As with all satirical cartoons, Zapiro’s portrayal was not meant to be taken literally. Satire works precisely because it does not present the literal reality and its power lies in the ability of the audience to make connections between the figurative depiction and the actual situation. At the time, not long after Zuma had been acquitted of rape, his followers were — without any rebuke from their leader — making dire threats against the judiciary, the courts and the justice system regarding the corruption charges against him. In that context, Shapiro’s cartoon was legitimate comment.

Not only would pursuing court action betray Zuma’s indifferent grasp of democratic norms, but it could be truly damaging to him in other ways. With neither the corruption charges nor the arms deal properly resolved, canny lawyers would happily dredge up all the injurious information they can. Nor can he now back off without conceding that his bombastic threats were empty. Zuma’s predicament shows once again how unsuited he is to be president.

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