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Zuma cartoon: Worth a thousand words?

Mail & Guardian Online reporter and Sapa, Sapa-AFP

It seems a picture really is worth a thousand words after cartoonist Zapiro unleashed a storm of controversy this week.

It seems a picture really is worth a thousand words after cartoonist Zapiro unleashed a storm of controversy this week for depicting Jacob Zuma and other leaders riding roughshod over the country’s justice system.

The cartoon, first published in the Sunday Times, shows African National Congress (ANC) leader Zuma unbuckling his belt—his buttocks partially exposed—in front of a woman who is being held down by leaders of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP), the ANC Youth League and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Gwede Mantashe, ANC secretary general, says: ‘Go for it, boss!”

The woman in the cartoon represents the justice system, so identified by a banner across her body—implying that Zuma, together with the ANC and its alliance partners, is “raping” the judicial system.

The press ombudsman’s Khanye Mndaweni said on Tuesday that although the office had received two calls about the matter on Monday, no formal complaint had been laid yet.

Zapiro—whose real name is Jonathan Shapiro—told the Mail & Guardian Online on Monday that “there are layers in this cartoon. The primary point is that Zuma is violating the justice system and the spirit of the Constitution. That violation is depicted as a rape.”

On Tuesday, he said he had thought “very, very carefully” before putting pen to paper, and that he had also asked female friends for their opinion.

“There is a very, very pronounced tendency in this country towards exceptionalism, as if our politicians are more sacrosanct than politicians worldwide. That I take issue with,” he said. “I really feel strongly that they have to take a hard look at what they are doing and not use the red herring of racism.”

His women friends, though shocked, felt that the cartoon not only showed graphically what was happening to the justice system and constitutional principles, but that it also contained a second level of criticism on violence against women in a very patriarchal society.

Zapiro said the blindfolded figure of justice was an allegorical figure going back centuries.

“The fact that Jacob Zuma has this personal history is his problem,” he said.

The ANC is expecting at least 5 000 supporters to converge on the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Thursday night before Friday’s ruling on whether the decision to charge Zuma was lawful.

Zuma faces a charge of racketeering, four charges of corruption, a charge of money laundering and 12 charges of fraud related to the multibillion-rand government arms deal.

Learning curve
Speaking at the University of Johannesburg on Tuesday, Zuma said although the judiciary was the final arbiter of disputes, it was not above criticism.

”It can’t be said you can’t criticise the judiciary. That is what is being said in South Africa. That is not right. But, the criticism should be fair and should be informed. That is very important,” he said, addressing students on “access to justice”.

It was “only in dictatorships and autocracies that criticism is viewed with contempt”.

He said South Africa, as a 14-year-old democracy, was going through a learning curve and still internalising fundamental principles of democracy. Debates would help this process.

He said ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe and secretary general Gwede Mantashe would never undermine the judiciary, nor the rule of law.

“As the ANC we reiterate and affirm our belief in the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary to be the final arbitrator of disputes.

“Motlanthe, Mantashe will never undermine these institutions. We seek to protect and strengthen them as the ANC has always done since 1912.

“I believe in a free and independent judiciary that should operate without fear or favour. I believe in the right of equal access to the courts for all South Africans,” he said.

‘No longer funny’
Hundreds of readers of the M&G Online and its invitation-only blogging platform Thought Leader have been moved to comment on the furore, some using their real names and some using pseudonyms.

Reader Tsiliso Tamasane said: ‘Zapiro has an insatiable hatred for Mr Zuma and will use any event to publicly humiliate him. It’s no longer funny.”

Another reader, Joseph Sifundza, said while he has always enjoyed Zapiro’s cartoons, he thought the cartoonist had gone ‘a bit far with this one”.

‘In fact, the NPA is the one raping Mr Zuma’s rights with the help of the media and the opposition parties,” said Sifundza.

Others thought it was fair comment.

‘It’s called political satire and is required in any healthy democracy,” said a reader using the name Meren Gue.

A reader under the name Garg Unzola said Zapiro is not a journalist. ‘Cartoons are not examples of investigative or informative journalism. You should view his cartoons with the same apprehension that you should read a columnist’s column. Take it with a pinch of salt, accept that it is Zapiro’s opinion and move on.”

Reader Rose Morrow said the cartoon, converted to text and abbreviated in journalistic speak, would probably go something like this: ‘Jacob Zuma, the president of the once highly respected and admired ANC, stands accused of attempting to rape the justice system of South Africa. His wholly self-serving, entirely unethical ‘struggle’ tactics to avoid at all costs his corruption trial are blindly supported by certain prominent leaders within that party, the ANCYL and the tripartite alliance. As one, they have launched a scathing, unabated, unfounded attack on the credentials and motive of our judges, including those from the Constitutional Court, many, if not all of whom, featured strongly in South Africa’s struggle history.

Added Morrow: ‘Printed in words, the comment would cause hardly a ripple!”

Pushing the boundaries
Jane Duncan, the executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute in Johannesburg, said on Tuesday she had initially thought the cartoon to be “quite risky”.

Duncan also believes that Zuma may have a case against Zapiro.

‘Yes, Zuma can sue Zapiro for defamation because it could evoke an association with the rape trial and depicting him as a rapist while he was not found guilty,” she said. “A cartoon is a creative form of expression and it can be read in different ways. So I think the cartoonist should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

She added: ‘A cartoonist is a lot freer than a journalist”.

Fellow cartoonist and author Andy Mason told the M&G Online on Tuesday that freedom of expression is not an unlimited right, and these limits need to debated by the public.

“It’s not the cartoonist who published it. The editor makes the considered decision to publish it. It’s a carefully considered risk taken in the context of the role of the newspaper. It’s not an issue of rights, it’s about responsibility,” said Mason.

“A cartoonist is given licence to go further than others and to push the boundaries. One of the tasks is to create public debate.”

‘Over-sensitive’
Anton Harber, journalism professor at the University of Witwatersrand, told the M&G Online: ‘South Africans are over-sensitive.”

He said he thinks it’s a powerful cartoon that ‘very clearly pushes the boundaries, but cartoons are satire. We give them [cartoonists] more space as journalists. You can even say this cartoon is outrageous, but that’s the function of a cartoon.”

He added: ‘Press freedom allows you to be tough and provocative.”

However, where to draw the line is hard to define, according to Harber. ‘It’s a question of judgement and taste.”

There are different possible objections to this cartoon, he said. Firstly, it could harm Zuma’s dignity, and any cartoonist should be conscious of that. But, he said, ‘when you are a public persona you are open to more satire than normal citizens”.

Another possible objection is gender violence. ‘But, in my opinion, the cartoon does not glorify violence against women.”

Thirdly, the ANC and its partners say the cartoon is referring to Zuma’s rape case, but Harber feels ‘those people are reading it far too literally”, saying: “It doesn’t directly refer to the rape trial.”

At a lecture at Wits in April this year, Harber said that cartoonists find themselves increasingly the target of criticism and attacks.

On Tuesday he said this is because South Africans are ‘over-sensitive”.

An important reason for this is that South Africa is still a young democracy. ‘In a lot of other countries this cartoon would be not that controversial,” he said. ‘Zapiro is really pushing the boundaries and he takes it further than others. But that’s what you do as a cartoonist ... And [as a young democracy] we need it.”

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