A Zap in the Face

Has Zapiro gone too far this time? I’m not sure. His instantly infamous cartoon of Jacob Zuma about to rape the legal system is a fiercely strong statement. It’s the kind of cartoon that really kicks you in the guts. And it’s ambitious too. Instead of just lampooning Zapiro’s favourite shower-headed target, this time he’s implicated all the big political players as active participants in the rape.

Understandably, the cartoon has got a lot of people very angry. The ANC, its youth league, Cosatu and all the other organisations featured in the piece are unanimous in their condemnation of Zapiro. Of course, there has been the meaningless, knee-jerk accusation of ‘racism’, which is trotted out so often it has lost any impact whatsoever. But there are other criticisms of the cartoon which are not so easy to dismiss.

I’m not going to get into that particular quagmire, but I do get the sense that Zapiro is very angry at Zuma and his allies for their anti-judicial rhetoric, and anger is a difficult emotion to control. But he does have a point. Many of Zuma’s allies have publicly questioned the validity of the judicial system and have accused the courts of waging an unjustified vendetta against JZ. This position undermines the authority of the legal system in favour of a party-political agenda, and that can never be a good thing. Zuma is also guilty of the most astonishing double standards by whining that the court case has dragged on too long, while at the same time mounting every legal challenge imaginable to sandbag the prosecutors’ attempts to get him into court in the first place.

But here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what you think. Whether you feel the cartoon is good, bad or indifferent, Zapiro is just doing his job. For hundreds of years, political cartoonists have used the power of illustration to mock, belittle, ridicule and deflate those powerful forces which they see as being corrupt. The kings of Europe had to deal with them. American presidents have had to deal with them. Who knows? Maybe there are even some hieroglyphics carved on the wall of a pyramid which read ‘Pharaoh is a bastard’.

Political cartoons, by their very nature, are not supposed to be objective. They are intrinsically subjective expressions of how a certain individual perceives a situation, and therein lies their power and their purpose. Cartoons force us to confront and question unattractive aspects of our society. It’s not about whether the cartoonist is right or wrong. It is about stimulating discussion for and against the issue at hand.

Portraying a greedy politician as a pig is therefore wholly within the rights of a cartoonist. Just think back to the great cartoonists of the apartheid era, such as Abe Berry, Dov Fedler and Andy. They did not shy away from depicting the politicians of the day as murdering villains with blood on their hands. And they too received a lot of political pressure to tone down or withdraw their cartoons by the regime in charge. But through it all, they stuck to their guns and continued to call things as they saw them. As I said before, it’s their job.

So, while I can see that Zapiro has created an outrageous cartoon (which he freely acknowledges), I do not think that he has overstepped his rights as a cartoonist. Freedom of speech unfortunately means that we sometimes have to permit the publication of opinions with which we don’t agree.

Personally, I would have probably avoided the rape metaphor and gone with a less contentious image, such as Zuma and his cronies holding a gun to the ‘Justice’ lady’s head. It would have communicated the same message within a more apposite context, as I do feel that Zuma and his gang are attempting to hold the courts hostage with their veiled threats. However, this is Zapiro’s work and he has every right to express his anger and frustration within the forum of what we hope will remain the free press.

Besides, if the ANC was clever, they would have ignored the one-off cartoon and let it fade into oblivion. Instead, they have shouted about it so much, they have turned one man’s personal comment into a widely-read news story. In the words of Lou Todd (from the TV series Little Britain), ‘What a kerfuffle!’. Oh well, at least Zapiro hasn’t drawn a cartoon featuring the prophet Mohammed yet. Let’s be thankful for small mercies. IMHO.

[Originally posted 09/09/2008]

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