Editorial: Zapiro – A time to reflect

Jonathan Shapiro, better known as top cartoonist Zapiro. (David Harrison)

Jonathan Shapiro, better known as top cartoonist Zapiro. (David Harrison)

As a newspaper, the Mail & Guardian is aware that we cannot step into the same river twice, to misquote Heraclitus. Our country is constantly evolving in terms of what it will and will not tolerate.

Zapiro’s cartoon on Tuesday in The Times newspaper that depicted National Prosecuting Authority head Shaun Abrahams as a dancing organ grinder’s monkey was clearly not something we can tolerate. The problems with the depiction are outlined by Sean O’Toole and acknowledged in part by Zapiro himself in Rebecca Davis’s interview with him.

This is of course not the first time one of Zapiro’s cartoons has elicited outrage – an emotion regularly generated by sharp-penned satirists all over the world in countries where freedom of expression is cherished.

For decades, Zapiro has proved to be a dazzling talent at holding power to account through his chosen medium. But his critics, including those in our newsroom, believe he has misstepped too many times on issues of representation, particularly when it comes to race and gender.

What are the borders between freedom of speech and problematic depictions that we must push back against? The M&G newsroom had a robust debate – in the truest sense of that phrase – about what our position should be around the Abrahams cartoon, given Zapiro’s long and historic association with this newspaper.

Some voices have called for sanction and these will be heard and published where appropriate. For the spirit of a newspaper is to encourage debate, even around the most difficult and thorny of topics. And it is in that spirit that we have engaged Zapiro and decided to work with him on an ongoing basis to help him— and us – gain a better understanding of where our country is at.

These discussions have led to his cartoon for us this week. Zapiro’s response to the outrage generated by the Abrahams cartoon changed over the week, as he noted in his interview with the M&G. The time has perhaps come for him to stop defending and to start listening.

He has committed to doing just that with his cartoon for the M&G this week and in doing the difficult work of self-reflection and self-criticism that every South African should commit to in the interests of ensuring that our fledgling democracy matures and grows and that we rid ourselves of the cancer of racism and discrimination.

Those who have called for us to sanction Zapiro will no doubt be disappointed, whereas those who believe in absolute freedom of speech will take issue with the measures we have taken, calling it blind political correctness.

We will continue listening to all voices of reason and evaluating the best course of action, but we believe that the timeless values of dialogue and debate, though sometimes not fashionable, should always win the day.

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