Zapiro cartoon not 'serious' by any imaginative stretch

Jonathan Shapiro, the cartoonist Zapiro, stands accused of having a personal vendetta against President Jacob Zuma. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Jonathan Shapiro, the cartoonist Zapiro, stands accused of having a personal vendetta against President Jacob Zuma. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

In general, cartoonists, like royalty, do not do well when criticised. One needs only to read Zapiro’s reaction to the criticism of his vulgar cartoon of President Jacob Zuma in last week’s Mail & Guardian. He came across more as a thin-skinned celebrity than the satirical cartoonist some would like us to think he is.

Zapiro may be used to some in the media kissing his royal arse.
The possibility of him getting it wrong does not exist any more. To his press fan club, his deviance equals normality and his obvious prejudice against Zuma is philanthropic because it helps or affirms their collective cause. Increasingly, his cartoons look like part of an underfunded advertising campaign paid for by Opponents of JG Zuma (Pty) Ltd.

I am not a psychologist, but I think there is a case for examining the psychological profile of the likes of Zapiro and other Zuma detractors. It could make interesting reading. Italy already offers master’s courses in Mafia psychology. I am just pointing out possibilities. Editors permitting, one day I will return to the similarities between the Mafia and some South African media.

Zapiro’s monumental delusion is exacerbated by those outside the media who defend or praise his work, thinking they can lay claim to being “liberal” or “progressive”. However, smut and prejudice can never be substitutes for intellectual and ideological engagement, which is what liberalism and progressiveness are ultimately about.

Zapiro’s claim that his latest cartoon constitutes “serious commentary” is laughable. In an era in which liberals have forgotten how to be liberal and serious commentators cannot distinguish between informed analysis and bias, personal vendetta does pass for serious comment.

For a man involved in a lawsuit with the president to tell us his portrayal of Zuma constitutes serious commentary is disingenuous. What next? That cartoons of his rival litigant are fair comment? Journalists must be queuing at the door of South Africa’s most celebrated cartoonist to learn how to achieve such levels of objectivity and detachment.

A sick mind
Zapiro’s obsession with the private parts of another man betrays a sick mind. I found last week’s cartoon strident and mocking. But it went further: it demeaned the president and impugned his dignity. In many cultures, not just African, if you want to demean a person you make reference to their genitalia. This is where Zapiro crossed the line. There is a difference between being satirical and being demeaning.

Satire, my English professor taught me, is a literary way of denouncing, criticising and laughing at the foibles or vices of a person or society with the aim of correcting them. Usually, humour is part of satire. Zapiro’s cartoon is wanting in all these respects. Instead of helping society to deal with its vices, it polarises, largely along racial lines, in the same manner as The Spear. Instead of getting people, including the president, to laugh at what Zapiro thinks are his foibles, it demeans and humiliates, generating anger and an urge to close ranks both politically and racially. Ultimately, the cartoon achieves the opposite of what it hoped to achieve – assuming, of course, that its intentions were satirical and devoid of political or racial mischief.

As for Zapiro’s claim that his latest cartoon is meant to be “humorous”, he should try harder. If he attempted to understand the sensibilities of the majority of South Africans, not just M&G readers to whom his humour might appeal, he would realise that his sense of humour, particularly in this instance, is coarse, immoral and inelegant.

Zapiro should try to speak to the ordinary folk who marched to the Goodman Gallery during the Spear drama. I know he is not part of their crowd – and would perhaps rather eat rat poison than be seen in their company – but it could give him  another perspective. Also, such interaction could expand his satirical work beyond the president. Otherwise, his seeming fixation with one subject might indicate that the satirical well has dried up and the cartoonist is without clothes.

Vusi Mona is a government ­spokesperson. These are his ­personal views

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