From the time the drawings of the Prophet Muhammad set the world alight it’s been clear that cartooning — the right to draw — will be at the epicentre of media freedom debates.
South Africa’s been a tinder-box too since ANC president Jacob Zuma sued Zapiro for defamation for attaching a shower to the head of any image he draws of the big man of our time.
The issue, therefore, is not merely the monumental failure of humour that this week’s cartoon has provoked in the big red men who are angry that they have been drawn as part of a lynch-mob, aiding the rape of justice by Zuma.
Of greater concern is the ignorance of the role we give to cartooning in modern liberal societies such as we like to claim we are.
Cartoonists are our iimbongi, the patriots who speak truth to power when necessary. They are the court jesters who make us laugh and then cry when we realise that what’s been drawn is often the fundamental truth or a portent of what might come to pass if we are not vigilant.
And so it is with this drawing.
To invest such power in the pens of cartoonists requires a social contract between the public and the satirist and that means that we roll with the punches; we laugh until we cry, but we do not say that what’s good for the gander is not good enough for the top goose.
Lining the walls of Cosatu House is a range of framed Zapiro cartoons that Zwelinzima Vavi commissioned, which he shows visitors with some pride.
They capture the various moments when our largest union federation has spoken truth to power in strikes or when it has stood up for democracy in Zimbabwe while others have been lily-livered, or when the man with the funny pen has let rip at the conservative economics of the former United-Democratic-Front-activist-turned-Finance-Minister Trevor Manuel.
Who can forget Zapiro’s drawing of Manuel as Maggie Thatcher (a popular caricature the finance minister must have hated and which Vavi loves) doing a striptease as his budgets began to loosen the purse strings?
The cartoon is a sacred space and believing in media freedom is not a tap you can switch on and off, taming his pen here, encouraging him to sharpen it there.
Those who call for Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya’s head do not understand that the relationship between cartoonists and editors is very different from that between us and our journalists.
To make it any other way is to begin to erode the special role of a cartoonist in public democratic life. Cartooning needs to be neither accurate nor truthful, the measures of other forms of journalism.
It is an art that is meant to push the envelope, to cause discomfort, to exaggerate threat and mock almost everything. As talk of a political deal to get the ANC president out of his political jam grows apace Zapiro’s work of memory is important — and he attaches the shower permanently to Zuma’s head to serve this end.
The greater the freedom of the cartoonist, the higher the democratic quotient of a society. And so, what might it say that, after all the years of vicious pillory, President Thabo Mbeki has never sued Zapiro, nor have his strongmen tried to break his crayons?
Yet we now have a man who wants to be president who has sued our cartoonist laureate and whose strongmen are up in arms. By the threats and bilious anger of this week they have metaphorically stomped on his chalk. It is an ominous moment.
Perhaps they are so angry because the cartoon makes them look in the mirror to see an image they would rather not face?
For what is it when the SACP leader, Blade Nzimande, says the country will be taken to the brink if Zuma is tried?
What is it when Vavi says he will bring his workers out on strike if Zuma goes to trial; when he threatens a workers’ rebellion should Zuma be found guilty?
What is it when youth league leader Julius Malema says he will kill if Zuma is found guilty?
And what is the year-long campaign against senior judges and the stated view that they are counter-revolutionary?
All of this is a systematic erosion of the justice system; a violation so severe that it is a rape. And it’s good that someone’s had the courage to draw it, if not to say it. Like their leader, the big red men should take a cold shower and have a laugh.