/ 2 April 2008

Dr Zapiro dispenses his muti

If laughter is fine medicine, then it’s appropriate that South Africa’s lead dispenser — the ace cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro — can now be called ”Doctor”.

For his world-class cartoons that both hurt and heal, the journalist received an honorary doctorate at Rhodes University last week.

The man who helps us laugh at our clowns is also a finalist for the Mondi Shanduka newspaper awards next week. That is a competition where he has already won the graphical journalism section many times previously, as well as the appellation of South African Journalist of the Year in 2006.

Speaking at the Rhodes ceremony, South Africa’s globally respected graphic commentator said the country was far from sliding back to apartheid repression, ”but we must point out the threats and fight for freedom”.

He continued: ”I know it is easier being on the sidelines and not in the engine room, but all of us have the right to comment, parody and ridicule.”

For a person who had his first cartoon published at age 11, and who now generates at least five gems a week, Zapiro continuously exercises this right — and with unique talent, striking bravery and unerring impact.

”Globally, how much freedom a cartoonist has is a litmus test for democracy,” Zapiro told the Rhodes graduation.

On the other hand, some of those satirised by his work no doubt prefer their democratic right to sue this no-holds-barred critic.

He’s under legal attack from African National Congress president Jacob Zuma — whose caricature he has condemned to have a shower sprouting from the skull as a continuing reminder of the man’s gaff about standing under sprinkling water as a kind of retrospective safe sex.

Zuma initially sought R15-million for damage to his reputation. ”What reputation would that be?” Zapiro asked his audience at Rhodes. He went on to describe how, after winning top position at Polokwane last December, the ANC leader realised his reputation was not quite so battered after all. The case has now been cut to R2-million — this time for damage to ”dignity”.

Zapiro has elicited the wrath not only of politicians, but also of the pro-Israel lobby. This, he admitted to his audience, was a difficult personal matter as a member of the Jewish community. But it was necessary when Israel’s actions were indefensible.

The present pressures are mild compared with the apartheid days, which saw Zapiro forced into hiding and later being detained in solitary confinement without charge. ”The police asked me why I drew them as pigs,” he recounted. His response was: ”I draw what I see.”

Zapiro is mindful that in 1985, fellow graphic artist Thami Mnyele, exiled in Botswana, was murdered by South African soldiers who made sure they blasted his artwork with bullets as well.

In Kenya today, according to Zapiro, no one can work as a cartoonist without a journalism qualification. These cases showed that ”tyrants recognise the subversive impact of cartooning”.

Ridiculing officialdom, said the cartoonist, is what his craft is all about — a way of ”speaking out for the voiceless and the underdog”.

In his speech at Rhodes, Zapiro told of a milestone in his career when he received a personal phone call from then-president Nelson Mandela. Imitating the great man’s accent, he shared verbatim the message that he received from the great man. It was: ”You are doing your job.”

”I wish others would also understand that,” commented Zapiro, ”although maybe then I would run out of material.”

On the other hand, this is a person who gets 22 newspapers every day, and who continuously keeps his TV and radio switched on. The doctor will be in business for a long time yet.