/ 12 September 2008

A licence to cheek

Several different strands have emerged in the public furore around the now famous Zapiro cartoon of tripartite alliance leaders urging Jacob Zuma to rape Lady Justice.

The crudest response came from ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, who said the cartoon was ”disrespectful of the leadership of the ANC and the alliance. One day Zuma will be Zapiro’s president and he will have to respect him.”

Respect is a fine thing, but in a democracy it is not something that automatically attaches to prominence. It has to be earned. In fact, it is the job of cartoonists to be disrespectful of those in high office and not to allow status to silence them.

Closely allied to this line of attack is the view that the cartoon is racist and part of a media project to undermine the new order. Malema said: ”There are white racist journalists who project African leadership as irresponsible and we will never allow that.”

In a more measured comment Sipho Seepe wrote in Business Day that ”many did find the cartoon racially offensive”, pointing out that white people have difficulty in understanding the depth of sensitivity felt by black people on issues of race.

We are all shaped by our backgrounds and white people do well to concede that race must ”feel” different to us. But I do think that Zapiro’s own defence holds water: for one thing, his cartoons of the previous white rulers were at least as brutal as any he has drawn more recently.

And, while on the subject of sexual imagery, some may remember that he drew former president PW Botha in the middle of sex with his new and much younger wife, while telling the Truth Commission on the phone that he was too ill to attend their hearings.

Even more persuasively Zapiro points out that he is tackling people in power who happen to be black, rather than because they are black. The Malema argument, often expressed by ANC leaders, sees attacks on black leaders as inevitably racist, which in effect attempts to put them beyond criticism. And that can’t be reasonable.

Another strand in the debate has been the accusation that it was insensitive to use the image of rape ”in a country where we have a serious scourge of fighting violence against women and in particular rape”, as the ANC, Youth League and SACP said in their joint statement.

Yet it seems to me that the image does nothing to make light of rape. On the contrary, it relies heavily on the idea that this is an act of utmost brutality. This is not a cartoon that is meant to be a joke.

Zuma’s travails in the past couple of years also mean that the cartoon immediately evokes the memory of his own rape trial, which ended in his acquittal. To some observers, such as Adam Habib of the University of Johannesburg, the cartoon is saying that Zuma was guilty of rape, no matter what the court found.

I’m sure any defamation case Zuma may bring as a result of this cartoon will try to establish that this is its meaning.

I think this interpretation reads too much into the cartoon, however; the primary point here clearly has to do with the approach he and his allies are taking to his legal problems. It’s an attempt to rape the legal system, the cartoon says.

But the reference to his actual rape case can’t be missed, and Zapiro must have foreseen the way in which this resonance would further sharpen the comment. It’s a little disingenuous to say, as he has done, that Zuma’s personal history is his problem. It seems clear that this has played a major part in fuelling the outrage from the ANC and its allies.

What Zapiro has drawn is a common metaphor, that of the rape of justice, itself well established in the persona of a blindfolded woman carrying scales. In written form the image evokes little comment. But as a drawing it seems to carry much more weight.

As a word, rape can remain abstract, while in the image we have to look the violence in the eye: we are confronted with the anguish and fear on the face of the woman, the sight of partially exposed buttocks and many other unpleasant details.

Pictures and images have to be handled with some care, since they can be offensive and shocking, but I think that some sensitivities are more worthy of consideration than others.

I have been asking myself how this cartoon is different from the Mohammed cartoons that sparked such controversy some time ago. At the time I argued that they deliberately set out to offend religious sensitivities and that this put them beyond the pale.

It seems to me that the Zapiro cartoon has offended against sensitivities that are mainly political – as Malema says, they are seen as disrespectful of some political leaders. I don’t think newspapers have to be as careful about these kinds of sensitivities.

Some years ago an imbongi — praise-singer — jumped on to a chair next to President Thabo Mbeki at a meeting with traditional leaders and delivered a performance that was a stinging rebuke, while Mbeki listened with a bowed head.

This is the tradition to which cartoonists belong. Much like the court jesters of the European Middle Ages, they have licence to be cheeky.

Zapped by Zapiro: readers’ comments
The paper and the website have received an unprecedented amount of comment from readers on this issue. Here is a sampling of the varied views expressed

One of the best political cartoons of our time. — Louis van Heerden

I take my hat off to Zapiro. You are one courageous dude! — Tsepo Zondi

Good work, Zapiro! I have been waiting for so long to see South African[s] practising ”freedom of speech”. — S’nothile Mbatha

— the cartoon is insensitive and an insult to black people as a whole. — Mtungwa Mbulazi

How is the cartoon an insult to black people as a whole? I am labelled ”black” and I took no offence. — Khathutshelo

There is nothing wrong with telling our leaders, who sometimes think they are half-gods, that they are like anybody else. — Kizito Mwanga

Zapiro left a very bitter taste in my mouth. — Itumeleng

I give Zapiro the benefit of the doubt, but we are really tired of the man with the shower on the head, week in, week out. — Kwena Mokgohloa

It’s ironic that Mr Zuma says the judiciary is not above criticism, but he cries foul when under criticism himself. — Taban Matibe

At first I was taken aback … But the word ”rape” is used to describe an attack on an institution, and in that sense I found it very clear. — Jean Lewis

Zuma and the alliance partners cannot bear the thought that the truth can be so easily depicted. — Peter Pan

This is exactly the way in which normal South African citizens view current happenings. — Henk Els

Zapiro has an insatiable hatred for Mr Zuma and will use any event to humiliate him publicly. — Tsiliso Tamasane

I will kill for Zapiro! Er, umm, what I meant to say is … I will lay down my life for Zapiro! — Trevor Green

Zapiro does not even create the humour. That is done by these clowns who try to portray themselves as leaders … — Cyber Dog

Go and look at some Hogarth cartoons from the 18th and 19th centuries and notice you’re 200 years out of date in South Africa. — Alisdair Budd

I am a great fan of Zapiro, but I find this cartoon offensive. — Paul van Uytrecht

It’s a vicious cartoon – which is exactly what we needed someone to show us! — Peter Bu

Calling judges names and protesting outside justice offices to try to influence rulings is as exactly as Zapiro has depicted it. Rape! — Mzantsi FoSho

In words, the cartoon would go something like this: ”Zuma stands accused of attempting to rape the justice system of South Africa. His self-serving tactics to avoid trial are blindly supported by certain leaders in that party, the ANCYL and the tripartite alliance. They have launched a scathing attack on the credentials and motives of our judges …” Printed in words, the comment would cause hardly a ripple! — Rose Morrow

This has been said a long time ago, but putting graphic visuals to it is a bit difficult to swallow. — Takgalo Rasebeka

I have always considered Zapiro a great cartoonist, but his cartoons depicting Jacob Zuma are despicable. They are hurtful in the extreme. If this constitutes press freedom, we might as well condone any kind of abuse. — Ndo Mangala

I wish a theme other than rape was used, because it also mean[s] the not-guilty verdict in the rape trial was not fair and that perhaps Zapiro doubts our justice system. — 10G

The cartoon is not offensive to females and [it] hit the nail on the head. — Kirsten Zissimides

Like diagnostic surgery, it is invasive, damaging — and necessary. — David Le Page

Great cartoon. Unfortunately the distastefulness is completely justified by the actions of those depicted. — Zoo

Rape of our whole justice system is worse than the abuse of one woman — and this IS rape! — Lyndall Beddy

I do not think the rape metaphor is downplaying the seriousness of rape. It is emphasising the serious threat to our justice system. — Vee van Gelder

I myself could not have had a better way of putting it, and I am a proud black man … The ANC is brutally raping our justice system. — Lubabalo

To continue the metaphor, Zuma is not only going to rape the justice system, he’s going to give it Aids too. That’s to say, its already fragile immunity to political coercion will be destroyed. — Dante

As a woman I am in no way affronted by the cartoon — rape is quite an apt metaphor for the sense of entitlement and ”might is right” that Zuma and his supporters have been displaying. — EvylShnukums

The leaders ridiculed by Zapiro on Sunday are family men and fathers with children, and most importantly they are human beings like you, not morons or baboons. — Sikhanyiso Kubheka

Who wants ”sensitive” cartoons? That’s like wanting unfunny jokes. — Jon

Zapiro has done great work in the past … It is sad when he resorts to such [viciousness] to make a point. — Siyabonga Ntshingila

Zapiro, are you testing our patience or what? Zuma is our leader and we will defend him as soldiers of our people’s liberation. — Silly

The timing of the cartoon and its content are questionable. — Vukile Mathonsi

If Zapiro wants to enter politics, let him do so openly, not hide behind the cartoons. — Sello More

To Msholozi: My poor and humble president, this should not bother or demoralise you … we are with you, we won’t stop supporting and defending you. — The Great MoAfrika

The ANC and its hagiographers are mad because someone is calling it as it is. — Mokone Molete

I find the cartoon deeply disturbing. — Krys Smith

It augurs well for the protection of our hard-fought freedom. — Khulekani Njokweni

— thinly veiled racism, aided by a sad case of misogyny … — Tafi Mhaka

Zapiro is, like David Bullard was, earning a living by following his brief. Get off his back and fire the editor. — Wyatt Smith

Julius Malema uses the ”kill” word and the Human Rights Commission is after his hide. Zapiro uses the rape picture and insults a senior leader — and the HRC says nothing. — Julius Ledwaba

— some people would kill and die for Zuma, so please don’t stir South Africa up for World War III. — Mvikeni kaNxamala Zuma

Zapiro and his agent provocateurs will stop at nothing to undermine the freedom they never had 15 years ago — they are trampling on a defenceless individual under the guise of media freedom. — Congress Mahlangu

The cartoon made me a little uncomfortable, but it was so accurate, so spot-on. — Kandi

— like a swear word at the right time, it got the point across. Beautifully. — The Elephant

— the NPA is the one raping Mr Zuma’s rights with the help of the media and the opposition parties. — Joseph Sifundza

It has taken too long for someone to confront Zapiro’s unbecoming behaviour. — Siphiwo Qangani