Zapiro wins round one on Zuma cartoon

Jonathan Shapiro’s cartoon of “Lady Justice” about to be raped by ANC president Jacob Zuma with the help of his political allies did not constitute hate speech, unfair discrimination or a violation of any human right enshrined in the ­Constitution, the South African Human Rights Commission has found.

The commission this week dismissed a complaint by the Young Communist League and its national secretary, Buti Manamela, that Shapiro defamed Zuma or violated his right to dignity in the cartoon published in the Sunday Times in September 2008.

The commission found that the cartoon expressed a level of “free, open, robust and even unrestrained criticism of politicians by a journalist” and had stimulated “valuable political debate”.

“Although the SAHRC finds the cartoon and the words used in relation thereto probably offensive and distasteful, same falls short of and does not constitute hate speech, unfair discrimination under Promotion of Equality and the Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act or a violation of any fundamental human right contained in the Constitution,” the commission’s finding reads.

The cartoon depicts Zuma with his pants undone, apparently preparing to rape a blindfolded “Lady Justice”, who is being held down by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. She is wearing a sash with the words “Justice System” on it.
A speech bubble shows Mantashe urging Zuma: “Go for it, boss!”

In the complaint to the commission Manamela and the league described the cartoon as “defamatory and offensive”, saying that it “depicts Zuma as a rapist, is distasteful, deplorable and boarders [sic] on defamation of character”. The cartoon was an abuse of press freedom, the complainants argued.

Zapiro believed that Zuma and the others depicted in the cartoon had threatened the justice system. In a written submission to the commission Zapiro argued that he was exercising his right to freedom of expression. He said that Malema had threatened to kill for Zuma if the case (relating to corruption charges against Zuma) went ahead; that Vavi had echoed Malema’s pledge; and that Mantashe had said there would be anarchy if the case continued, besides calling judges of the Constitutional Court “counter-revolutionary”. All these were a threat to the justice system, Zapiro said.

“I feel strongly that the very real intimidation of the judiciary and of individual judges justify my use of the potentially shocking rape metaphor. It is in the public interest that cartoonists and other satirists are able to make such robust interventions in public discourse,” he said.

The commission said that it was common knowledge that Zuma’s allies in the tripartite alliance were calling for a “political solution” to corruption charges he was facing at the time. It found that Zapiro acted with “bona fide artistic creativity, in the public interest” and that his cartoon did not discriminate against Zuma, women or rape victims, as claimed by the league. The justice system highlighted in the image “is not a person, thus harm cannot be incited against an object”, and the cartoon was satirical and metaphorical. It was “a political expression, published in the public interest and, as such, deserves heightened protection”.

The commission ruled that, in this case, “the right to freedom of expression outweighs Zuma’s right to dignity”.

“To condemn a legitimate expression of opinion such as this would constitute an invasion of the right to freedom of expression,” it said.

This week Manamela said the league welcomed the findings, “particularly where it concedes that the cartoon was offensive and distasteful”. But young communists still maintain that Zapiro could have expressed his message in a manner that was less offensive to Zuma and other alliance leaders.

“The right to freedom of speech should never be used to misrepresent findings by the courts or trample on the right to dignity of others, regardless of their position in society. We hope that Zapiro will take this into consideration in future.”

The cartoon won Zapiro the 2009 Mondi Shanduka Newspaper award for cartoons.

Zuma has also instituted a lawsuit against Zapiro, claiming R7-million: R5-million for alleged damage to Zuma’s reputation and R2-million for alleged damage to his dignity.

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice. Read more from Mmanaledi Mataboge