4000 Cartoons and 15 books. Johnathan Shapiro about his life, freedom of opinion and politics
(Editor: Annalisa Wellhäuser)
Open any South African newspaper today and you will most probably find a cartoon that comments South African politics drawn by the artist Zapiro. Who doesn‘t know the famous sketch picturing the current South African president Jacob Zuma with a shower above his head alluding to his statement that he took a shower after having had sex with an HIV-positive woman. Zapiro, born 1958 as Jonathan Shapiro in Cape Town, is the most famous cartoonist of these days in South Africa. His drawings appear in the Mail and the Guardian,Sunday Times and The Times. Moreover his art has been published in exhibitions all over the world and he has won numerous awards.
„SÜDAFRIKA – Land der Kontraste“, the German Gateway to South Africa, met Zapiro in his office in Cape Town to find out more about this artist who is not afraid to say what he thinks with if it comes to politics.
Zapiro already discovered his passion for art as a child. Back then he used to have nightmares about frightening monsters and in order to deal with those scary dreams, he started drawing about them. Indeed that kind of self-therapy did help him to overcome his nightmares. And not only that; He enjoyed the drawing a lot. It was his dream to become an artist. He entered drawing competitions and also was active for the school newspaper. He invented the little character “Prepi“, who commented on what‘s going on in preparatory school.
Soon ,he was also confronted with the politics happening in his country. His mum made him aware already at a very young age that they were living in a society “that was wrong“; his very first “kind of political experience“ was when Verwoerd 1 was assassinated in 1966. In school they were asked to pray for the “architect of apartheid“ and Zapiro remembers being confused and thinking“ Hey, this was not a good guy!“. Throughout his school time he was “at odds” with the general trend of supporting Apartheid amongst even English speaking white people, but he was not yet involved in any political actions at that time. After school he started studying architecture; not because he was passionate about it, but in order for him to stay out of the army. When he decided to change to graphic design and try to become a cartoonist, they „got him„, he had to enter the army. In the army Zapiro refused to carry a gun, so they made him carry a heavy wooden dummy and made fun of him. Once a colleague made him stand guard with it, „which was ridiculous, I became a bit of a laughing stock but in a funny way, like a clown thing„, Zapiro says.
However, the joke actually backfired, because he showed the other conscripts that he could handle this heavy arm very well as by doing exactly everything that they were doing with it. This was his way of rebelling against this and spreading his political message. He was regarded as a political consciousness non-commitant, as a communist, as dangerous. At that time he was not yet involved in any political organization, the UDF (United Democratic Front) formed just over a year after he was conscripted. But when it was formed in 1983, it was absolutely clear for him that he would join. Same appealed to his mum, his sister and a lot of his friends. Suddenly there was this non-racial grouping that felt right for them: much more elegentarian, much more open and much more connected to national politics. It was also connected to the ANC-but he didn’t want to be involved into nor speak about it, because that was dangerous when they found out they were linked. Him and some of his family members even got detained at some point.
However, Zapiro has never wanted to be a politician. He sees a big difference between being enormously involved as an activist and becoming a politician. ,,Professional politics are very different from being a political activist.” In his opinion only a few people managed to retain this integrity and those principles that guided them and made them passionate. Other people do things now out of personal gain or party political aims; they have become corrupt, comfortable and a bit apathetic compared to what they used to be. Also there are those who are within a party and are against those who are outside the party and maybe doing good things. „All those things I would hate„, he states. He has seen people he knew who have made this trancession- only a few managed it successfully. According to him the country needs people who become politicians and remain focussed, altruistic and incorruptible. But the country also needs civil society and media-so in his opinion his best role is to be a visual columnist- and still to a little extend an activist. To produce his drawings, he obviously needs to do a lot of research on politics. For that Zapiro listens to the radio a lot, reads many different newspapers and consults the internet in order to look at the same sort of issue dealt with in different ways. Also he records some things broadcasted on television.
Zapiro explains that cartoons are primarily about thinking and communication; about finding a device to say something that one believes in. „They are 80% idea and 20% drawing.„ According to him there are cartoonists out there, who are good, but not necessarily the best cartoonist in the world -however they are really able to communicate by their art. On the other hand it would not be possible to carry weak ideas with good drawings. „It`s about thoughts. „ To give an example, Zapiro speaks about one cartoon that he did, which displayed a little line of text on top saying „Whites who never benefited from Apartheid„ and a blank page underneath he states that at the time of the release of the cartoon, there were people denying to have known about Apartheid. There were white people avoiding responsibility for the benefits that they were given while living under Apartheid.
Zapiro was irritated by that attitude and got inspired to create this „cartoon„. This cartoon did not even have a picture, but still, so Zapiro, „ This cartoon was conceptually really good and really powerful, one of the best cartoons I have ever done.„ It is Zapiro`s intention to trigger strong reactions with his drawings amongst the people. He wants to make people think. Maybe some people say „That’s exactly how I feel, I didn’t know how to express it.„ But he is not only addressing the people who think exactly like him- which, in his opinion, would not make any sense. He knows that there are people, who might agree and as well disagree on his thoughts on certain issues. However it is not his intention to convince the people, who think completely different. According to him it is all those people in the middle-he can make them see something in a new way by being a little bit persuasive to them.
When asking him what subject he would like to draw a sketch on, that he is not allowed to draw one on, he replies that there is nobody who can tell him not to do a cartoon on a certain topic. It is rather him who holds himself back. When he started as a political activist he used to be quite constrained by political correctness, whereas these days he is ready to accept those rules. „ I don’t like to gratuisly insult people in a hurtful way, who are in a way vulnerable.„ Still, even then his feeling of what is acceptable to draw a cartoon on would be way further down the line than that of others. If he felt that people are the aggressors, he wouldn`t care about them. For instance, if it comes to religion. In his view religion has done a huge amount of harm with regard to gay people and women and it has even promoted spread of HIV. Concerning this topic he would go really hard for the people in power.
Zapiro says he has done things that people would consider totally insulting. He states that some things around traditional culture are quite difficult to deal with in cartoons, because people treat them in a way religion is treated. According to him there exists some kind of communality. And at the moment there would be plenty of times when cartoons can be misinterpreted on purpose to make people out as racists even though they are not.
After the feedback that Zapiro is receiving is not always positive; president Jacob Zuma has pressed charges against him already for doing certain drawings on him. Zapiro says that he believes in the South African institutions, in the constitution , and he feels that these are strong enough to keep up freedom of speech -which he supports and which is part of what gives him resolve. Zapiro explains that his politics haven`t changed a lot, but politics of some people in power have changed and he considers himself lucky to not have as much constraints as people in power. If he believes in something he will go for it.
Further I ask him about his opinion concerning voices in this country saying that some kind of reversed apartheid is arising, where it is now black South African people against the other cultures. Zapiro responds that this is one of the topics, where he will get either into one form of discourse or another depending on who he is speaking to. On the one hand, if he would be speaking to his old political comrades he would be mouthing off at the death of non racialism and at the rise of a certain form of nationalism and elitism. On the other hand, if those amongst the white South Africans, who have never had “political bone„ in their body during apartheid era come and complain in an uninformed way to him about how bad things are and so called „reversed racism„, he gets into a whole different conversation. He would try to explain how much better things are now than they were then. And after all it is still white people who are at the top of the power in many important fields. He says that there is a certain kind of racism that still exists very strongly in the white community of South Africa. He continues saying that there are some absurdities in the way that affirmative action has been taking place; not the way it should be. And that he is the last person to say that all is ok. But to claim that things are the same way as they used to be in Apartheid, simply reversed, was not true, but absolute rubbish.
Then we speak about Julius Malema singing the old song „Kill the boers„. Zapiro calls Malema`s behaviour „crass and wrong„, he could not sing that song in the context of the new South Africa. He explains that the song was an apartheid era song, which had a metaphorical reason. It was about killing the system of apartheid, to fight those police men and farmers, who really were brutally assaulting and killed people .„And that was all understood then.„ Zapiro states that it is wrong to sing that song today, because its purpose is essentially to try „to mobilize disaffected youth, because the ANC is not delivering properly to them and try to make them focus some of their anger on people, who these days are not necessarily aggressing, at least not the same extent as before.”However, he thinks that one cannot ban a song and that the high court`s decision to try to prevent him from singing the song was wrong. As a supporter of freedom of express he does not agree on it. „You can call somebody a political opportunist without saying you are not allowed to sing that song. It is a lot more nuanced and complicated than saying: Julius Malema is the equivilant of what Terre Blanche2 was…it doesn’t work like that.„ Zapiro has done cartoons criticizing that decision of the court. I support the human rights commission and the UN`s determination on the definition of hate speech and that it should be prevented. He explains that that would be hate speech where you could make a connection between something that was said, such as a speech, a song or a piece of writing, and the active going out and killing somebody. However, he doesn`t think that “ people went out killing people because of what Julius said…. “3 “If you can make that connection, that because of that song that person was killed..that`s where you can draw the line. But that’s very far down the line of speech before you can make that decision.”
Zapiro says that there was a complaint about his cartoon „Lady justice„ and that the human rights commission exonerated him for doing the drawing and its publication, because of their determination that it is not inciting anyone to do anything to anybody else. „It was a metaphor about what Zuma was doing to the judiciary.„ „Freedom of express is very important to me.„ So if he started saying ,they should ban that song, then he could as well allow somebody to say to ban his cartoon, because both of them could be interpreted in a way that they could be objectionable.„There has to be consistency.„
Zapiro is producing with his cartoons political messages
Before the interview comes to an end I would like to find out from Zapiro what are his wishes for the new South Africa, what kind of development he thinks is necessary for it to become the peaceful rainbow nation everybody is longing for. Zapiro answers, „I remember when Tutu came up with the rainbow nation idea during the meeting of the inconscription campaign in 1985.It was always a bit idealistic. „ According to Zapiro, Tutu wished for rainbow coalition of different groupings in the political movement fighting for the same aim: freedom, non racialism, democracy. However, Zapiro believes that South Africa has only had a few rainbow-moments since democracy. As an example he names the rugby world cup in 1995. “I`m afraid to say now, that unlike before, where I thought the white community was hugely responsible for not apologizing and not taking responsibility, I still say that ,I think now a lot more could have been done if the ANC had not become fat, comfortable and corrupt, and if say the people at the top were not promoting this narrow elite and not just paying lip service to delivery, but really were delivering and trying to bridge the wealth gap. That is where is should go.„ Zapiro believes that only then people can have some real reconciliation, because so far there are a lot of unresolved matters after truth reconciliation commission hearings. According to Zapiro, it is most important to close the inaquity in this society.„ South Africa has become the most inequal society in the world , we are even behind Brazil. And for that to be the state almost after 17 years of democracy is outrageous.„
Finally I would like to find out what Zapiro`s personal plans and dreams are for the future. „For the medium term I want to continue what I`m doing, but want to make sure I`m still feeling like I`m relevant and got something to say, because if I do not- I want to pull out and go for something in the long term.„ He has managed to produce over 4000 cartoons and 15 books , but he doesn`t want to do the same thing for ever, he also wants to do other things. In the long term Zapiro would like to move into some other genres of cartooning and storytelling, which he loves. He would like to become a bit more balanced person, because the intensity he has with the cartooning does tend to overwhelm a great part of his life. He wants to spend more time with his family.