Anger in their ink

If you look at early editions of The Weekly Mail, one feature captures the frenetic mood of the times, and the fledgling paper’s response to it, even better than the blank spaces representing information that could not be published. The ink-spattered urgency of Derek Bauer’s cartoons, so at odds with the careful draughtsmanship produced by contemporaries such as Dov Fedler, tells of a society living on the edge. His viciously distorted caricatures forced us to see leading politicians in a different light, stripping away the deferential aura on display in much of the mainstream press.

Bauer, given the job of editorial cartoonist in 1985, set the standard for those who were to follow. His iconoclastic style, reminiscent of the work of Ralph Steadman, added to The Weekly Mail‘s irreverent tone — although his captions and political knowledge did not always match up to the strength of the image. And sometimes he managed to offend the paper’s core readership, not just the powers that be. In 1991, for instance, after the South African cricket team had scored a memorable victory against the Australians in Sydney, his cartoon of a springbok mounting a kangaroo succeeded in upsetting everyone from feminists to those who objected to the use of the springbok as a national symbol.

Business interests, particularly a chain of shops that bore his name, eventually took up more and more of Bauer’s attention and he left the paper in the mid-1990s. His death in a car accident in December 2001 was mourned by everyone who loved The Weekly Mail.

The paper’s tradition of giving a chance to newcomers is not limited to those who write the stories. In 1991 Rico Schacherl, who had been friendly with some staff members at university, was hired as a freelancer to produce cartoons to illustrate stories. In May 1992 he, Harry Dugmore and Stephen Francis set up a meeting with the editors to pitch their idea of a South African cartoon strip.

Domestic workers and their relationships with employers was a sensitive issue and not one to be treated lightly, but Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim knew a good thing when they saw it. From a weekly slot in a spunky little newspaper, Madam & Eve has grown into a South African institution, appearing in nine dailies, several weeklies, on the web — and even as a television series. Its three creators at Rapid Phase, along with the Mail‘s Arthur Goldstuck, launched Laughing Stock magazine and this new workload — added to the burgeoning Anderson/Sisulu cartoon empire — soon forced Rico to drop his other freelance job for The Weekly Mail.

This opened up an opportunity for a former Parks Board official, based in Mpumalanga, who had been providing cartoons for the Pretoria News after their regular cartoonist committed suicide. The News editor, Deon du Plessis, put Jack Swanepoel in touch with Manoim — and ‘Dr Jack” has been brightening up the Mail & Guardian‘s pages ever since. The nickname was bestowed by a schoolfriend, who said Swanepoel was so insightful he should become a psychologist. Although he didn’t go for the office with the couch, Dr Jack is still using that talent.

The founding editors’ talent-spotting gifts held good when they were looking for a replacement for Bauer in 1994. A young Capetonian, who had studied to be an architect, had his first cartoons published by a newspaper in The Weekly Mail in 1986. In the intervening years, he had worked as a cartoonist for South and then travelled extensively overseas, but Harber and Manoim remembered Jonathan Shapiro.

Zapiro, as he is better known, admits he was influenced by Bauer’s work — but in this case the pupil has outshone the master. The quality of his drawing, allied to an acerbic wit and informed political commentary, has been recognised with many awards both locally and overseas. But a true testament to Shapiro’s standing as the best cartoonist South Africa has produced lies in the willingness of so many newspapers to share his services. The main editorial page cartoon is usually as exclusive to a paper as the leaders that accompany it, but most editors have recognised that none of his rivals can hold a candle to Shapiro.

With the exception of the late Bauer, these cartoonists, who were given their first breaks at The Weekly Mail/Mail & Guardian, have remained loyal to the paper. But their work now reaches a much broader audience, subtly shaping perceptions in society. The Wail‘s subversive influence is still spreading.

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