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Newsmaker: Zapiro

Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro, is one of South Africa’s most highly regarded cartoonists, with a cutting wit and his finger firmly on the pulse of society.

His work as a cartoonist began with a wide range of political and progressive organisations in the early 1980s, and he is currently editorial cartoonist for several newspapers, including the Mail & Guardian. We caught up with him to hear his views on everything from the infamous showerhead, to what gets him out of bed in the morning.

1. We know you’ve answered this question before, but a lot of people would still like to know: How do you do it? Where does your inspiration come from?

I am inspired by the crazy events around me, and just when I think it can’t get any weirder, it does. It’s a passion for the politics and the fabric of a society that drives cartoonists, and I am no different. At the same time I always keep my eyes open to the metaphors coming through in pop culture, films for example, as it has become more of a popular vehicle to express my views on what is going on around us.

2. What are your thoughts on producing more colour pieces? Or is black and white your trademark?

I do colour pieces now and then but I don’t want to get pigeon-holed into a certain way of doing things, so I only do colour when I feel it will add to the specific piece. More often than not I find that using linework and words will do the job. All my work is done in the old style, using a Bristol board and dipping pens with Indian ink.

3. How have you dealt with the inevitable criticisms of racism levelled at you?

I think it is quite enlightening that for the first 23 years of my career as a cartoonist there were no thoughts of such criticism, and it is interesting to note that these claims first started to emerge during the [Thabo] Mbeki/[Jacob] Zuma tussle. And it seems many people with strong credentials in the struggle for liberation have had mud flung their way in a similar fashion, simply because these detractors do not have a better argument. But at the same time I am aware that there are aspects of my work shaped by my experiences as a white person, despite my political views. However, I have always promoted non-racialism.

4. The showerhead has become something of a barometer for Zuma’s approval ratings. Tell us about the variations in the use of the showerhead in your cartoons?

The showerhead began in 2006, when Jacob Zuma made those comments during his rape trial. I was sued for the initial cartoon but readers responded so well that I decided to keep it on his head. I wanted to give him a break when he became president and raised it as a sort of symbolic distancing from the controversy that had previously followed him. I would move it up and down as a sort of fun thing depending on how I felt about his actions.

5. We see it’s been re-attached …

This week we have seen a significant shift in the way South Africans feel towards Zuma, even from his most hardcore supporters. So I think it is definitely time to play with the showerhead again, because I feel as though he’s earned it. Whether it stays where it is will depend on the actions of the president; I don’t really do much forward planning on these types of things.

6. Does Zuma still have charges against you and how much is he claiming from you?

Well there are currently two lawsuits against me, one dating from 2006 for the first showerhead piece I did in 2008, for R7-million.

7. Do the charges worry you?

In no way whatsoever. My sense is that these cases will not make it to court as there will be even more of a circus around the president than there is at the moment. They don’t concern me, I am more interested in staying at the cutting edge of what is happening in the social landscape of South Africa.

8. What do you make of the latest scandal surround Zuma’s “love child”?

I feel the issue around HIV/Aids is the most important part of the whole situation. My concern is around the morality of someone feeling so entitled to have these dalliances or relationships outside of his already polygamous relationships. There is also, of course, a sense of inequality for women. But like I said, all of this is superseded by the HIV/Aids message; it’s like Zuma is adopting do as I say, not as I do.

9. What about the upcoming State of the Nation address? Any thoughts on that?

My recent cartoons pretty much sum up my feelings on this matter. But I feel the serious issues facing the nation are being superseded by the president’s personal issues. It’s a very weird situation.

10. What do you have in your pockets?

Pens. I always have loads of pens in my pocket and a little pocket radio.

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