Shock treatment

2014-02-04 00:00

ONE of the occupational hazards of being a political cartoonist is that it is almost inevitable that, at some stage of your career, you will find yourself being accused of displaying “questionable taste” in your choice and/or treatment of a particular subject.

Back in my early days at The Witness, for instance, I very quickly learnt there were two topics I had to step very carefully around: religion and (this was back in the days when the then Natal still prided itself on being “the Last Outpost”) the queen, even the most gentle ribbing of the latter being sufficient to provoke a howl of outrage from the local royalists.

In vain would I point out that British cartoonists have always been a spectacularly disrespectful lot when it comes to the monarchy (one only has to look at their treatment of poor old George III, who early in his reign was portrayed as an obese, penny-pinching man who swilled medicine used to fight venereal disease, and George IV did not fare much better). For these readers this was completely out of bounds, a definite no-go area (although, I must guiltily confess, I still regard royalty as fair game).

My self-image took an even bigger pasting when one upset old woman wrote in to The Witness accusing me of “being consumed by a deep, underlying hatred of humanity”.

Somewhat chastened by these responses, I decided that perhaps it would be a lot safer if I just stuck to my editorial brief and aimed my poisoned barbs at the politicians who — with one or two very prominent exceptions — tended to have much thicker skins.

Even here, though, I found I was not completely fireproof. When I drew a cartoon making fun of AWB leader Eugène Terre’Blanche, a local supporter of his ripped it out of the paper and posted it back to me with all sorts of barely intelligible insults scrawled all over it in red ink.

In all of this it is, of course, important to remember that political cartooning is, by its very nature, a fairly robust sport and it is not the job of the cartoonist to hold back on his or her punches or refrain from hitting below the belt for fear of upsetting some readers’ delicate sensibilities.

Taking impertinent pot-shots at important figures is very much part and parcel of the game. It’s what we do. All good humour must, of necessity, contain an element of cruelty — a joke has, after all, got to be at someone’s expense.

The distinguished British cartoonist Sir Osbert Lancaster put the matter very succinctly: “The cartoonist must remain fundamentally bloody-minded, hold no cows sacred, and be capable of thoughts in the worst possible taste.”

Having said all this, though, I must hasten to add that I do not think that the principal aim of a political cartoon is in itself to cause hurt; rather it is to make a point.

Sometimes, in order to ram home this point, a cartoonist will deliberately choose an image knowing it may get up his or her readers’ noses — but that is collateral damage

In other words, when I am offensive I like to think it is for a good reason; I do not believe in being needlessly offensive.

It it because of this that I, for one, was totally supportive of Zapiro’s Rape of Justice cartoon, because I felt he had chosen an incredibly powerful visual metaphor to deliver a devastating critique of the Zuma administration.

I was not nearly so certain about the infamous Muhammad cartoons which, while ostensibly drawn to test the limits of freedom of expression, seem to have merely succeeded in causing a great deal of unnecessary anger and ill-feeling (although they certainly proved that people still take cartoons very seriously. I somehow doubt there would have been quite such a storm if someone had merely written an editorial on the subject.).

As a cartoonist I like to think my main role is to strike at (the abuse of) power. I am not certain if a person’s private religious beliefs fall within these parameters, unless, of course, such beliefs are used to justify some act of intolerance or cruelty or — as in the case of various members of our government — are made an excuse to claim divine sanction to rule forever.

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