Madam and Eve keep going

2004-04-22 16:00
Johannesburg - Madam is white and middle-class and Eve her black maid. They are rivals and yet accomplices sometimes. And together, the two leading ladies of a wildly popular cartoon strip have entertained the new South Africa for more than 10 years.

The emergence of a new black elite, Nelson Mandela's birthday, the fluctuating rand, polemics on the overseas visits of President Thabo Mbeki; no subject is taboo for "Madam and Eve" who freely expound on political, social and economic developments in the country.

A broken vase found on the ground leads to a homespun version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to look into human rights violations during the apartheid regime.

Eve, who sports a white apron and a feather duster in her hand, is often caustic and ironic.

And when the going gets rough, she has a favourite refuge: stretched out on the ironing board with a newspaper on her head to ignore the acerbic remarks of Madam and her mother.

The mother is a gin-swilling sexagenarian who has not really taken to the new order.

"Thousands of snowflakes landing everywhere. What can be more beautiful than a white South Africa ?" she once said watching snowfall - as Eve looks on aghast.

The cartoon strip created in 1992, two years before the country's first multi-racial elections, now features in some 12 newspapers and has been turned into books.

A runaway success

Each has been a runaway success, translated into several languages and "Madam and Eve" has even spawned a television series.

Ironically, the creator of this saga is American.

Stephen Francis came out to South Africa in the late 1980s and was jolted when he observed the network of relationships in his in-laws' family, which inspired him to create the cartoon along with illustrator Rico Schacherl.

The first strip was published in 1992 in the Weekly Mail, which has since become the Mail and Guardian. The characters have evolved since.

Madam's mother is shown being questioned about racism based on old strips in which she features. She defends herself, saying: "That's not fair! It's an old cartoon! I've changed since then!"

Schacherl echoes her.

"They have changed quite a bit, especially Madam," he said. "As a matter of fact, in 1994, we introduced the mother because Madam was getting too liberal and the contrast between her and Eve was dropping off."

John Daniel, research director at Human Sciences Research Council, said the cartoon strip had touched a chord in South African hearts.

"People can identify with both of them. It does touch on a certain reality in everybody's life," he said.

A positive influence

"Madame and Eve is one of a whole set of developments since 1994 which have contributed to changing attitudes in South Africa. It has been one of the positive influences."

He added: "In a way the cartoon pokes fun at the white Madam, it makes her look rather silly, it demystifies her in the minds of the reader."

Schacherl said an advertising agency "recently did a bit of focus group testing and (found that) Eve is very popular" among the estimated million-strong domestic workers in South Africa and had "sort of become a spokesperson for them."

When asked if the two women would survive a decade after democracy, Schacherl was upbeat, saying: "As long as we still have material to work with.

"South Africa is an extremely interesting place. We never ran out of material. We did have that comment after the 1994 election, people were saying what are you gonna do now ?"

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