Tough questions for Zapiro

2015-11-22 13:25

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Iconic South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, AKA Zapiro, has just released his 20th collection of cartoons in a collection called Rhodes Rage. We asked him some hard questions on representation and satire in his far-reaching body of work.

Let’s talk about the Zuma Brain cartoon. It caused a lot of controversy. Writers like TO Molefe, for instance, criticised you for being racist as it depicts black men as stupid, or only able to think about sex.

I stand behind that cartoon. Why do people immediately say that it plays into the idea of ‘the black man’ who is sex-obsessed and who is wasting money when it’s depicting Zuma. It’s not depicting all black people; it’s Zuma.

But you do understand the history of ‘scientists’ showing ‘evidence’ that black people’s brains are smaller than white people’s, and why such a cartoon would seem to fall into this tradition?

I do understand that. I’ve spent many hours discussing these things with other cartoonists. My friend Andy Mason, who’s a prominent artist and historian who has written on cartoons, had a seminar with Anton Kannemeyer and me where we looked at these things. I feel very strongly that while I don’t want to become part of a broad stereotyping – which I do think is problematic and damaging – I don’t always agree with people who say that showing Zuma in a particular light is necessarily part of that broad stereotyping.

Zuma is a politician, and all presidents and basically all politicians are subject to a level of scrutiny in democracies. Zuma is somebody who happens, also, to be a womaniser. He’s a lot worse than some of the stuff that’s out in the press. There are stories that would make your hair stand on end. Stories I won’t use until they’ve been verified.

You mention Kannemeyer. #Trending recently ran an article by writer Lwandile Fikeni that basically took Kannemeyer down. The feeling is that while his work was important during apartheid, it’s not evolving and it’s getting to a level now where it’s a little racist.

I was talking about being in a dialogue with Anton, among other people. That doesn’t mean that I like everything that every other person does. That’s not really the point for me.

The point for me as a cartoonist is that there are people who are pushing boundaries in certain ways. In the same way that I very much support the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ rights to do what they did, there are some cartoons that I don’t like. But I still support their right to do them, even though they are very problematic.

My general line is that I support Kannemeyer’s right to go really far and do things that some people find really offensive. As Voltaire apparently said: “I may not like everything you say, but I’ll defend to the end your right to say it.” I’m not saying that everything I’ve done would stand up to every level of scrutiny at any time in history. I’m not claiming infallibility.

I would say, especially as white progressives, we do have blind spots. So, as much as you think you are as enlightened as you can be, there might be certain prejudices that you’re still not aware of.

I think that would go for anybody who’s really contesting things in any sort of way. You can lose sight of things, and then there’s the way the things you do are interpreted by other people ... It’s one of the problems of all types of visual and verbal communication – if you put yourself out there, you will be interpreted in ways you didn’t expect.

I think I’ve tried to maintain a sort of progressive line, but that’s my interpretation of what a progressive line is.

So do you think, and I hate to ask this question, that political correctness is starting to restrict expression?

I oscillate on that one. On the one hand, as somebody who still has a lot of political correctness in me, despite what critics think, I had to actually whip some of the political correctness out of myself.

There are places I won’t go to because I don’t actually want to stereotype people. I understand why people get upset about certain things. But if someone thinks I’m on the end of the spectrum – I’m the racist, sexist, bigot who stereotypes everybody and cares nothing about people’s feelings, then I wonder how the rest of South Africa
stacks up.

Rhodes Rage is available at for R146

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