The men who thought life was a joke because they took it seriously

Like their colleagues around the world, South African satirists this week found themselves by turns pensive, introspective, philosophical, angry, rebellious and generally confused. But, true to form, some also found themselves wryly amused – not by the Charlie Hebdo massacre, but by the reaction.

“Hearing John Kerry and even the Queen, people who have been depicted by these cartoonists in all sorts of sexual positions in the past, feeling sorry and aggrieved about what happened, they would drink to that, they would be in hysterics about that,” said Thierry Cassuto, executive producer of ZANews and Puppet Nation of the cartoonists and staff who were killed in Paris on Wednesday.

“In a way they would feel very odd about this global consensus about how they were fantastic, great people, doing amazing work, when actually they were constant irritants. During their lifetimes they were not revered, except by some of us who grew up with them.”

Cassuto credits Charlie Hebdo, and its over-the-top and deeply dark satire as inspiration for some of his work that lampoons local politicians and makes fun of South African sensitivities ranging from race to rugby. As a French teenager, he said, the cartoonists he would later become acquainted with were at the cutting edge of politics in the 1970s and 1980s, and in them he would see the kind of anti-establishment, anti-authority attitude that would become his bread and butter in South Africa.

In a rush to judgment – and solidarity – Cassuto said, the world this week seemed to miss two important things about Charlie Hebdo: it, and its cartoonists, would never take themselves seriously, and they would be more than a little surprised to find themselves described with words such as “racist” or “Islamophobic”.

“[Georges] Wolinski [one of the cartoonists who died on the scene of the shooting] took everything with a pinch of salt. There is the famous story about him saying he wants to be cremated when he died, and saying to his wife she should scatter his ashes in a toilet bowl so that he can look up her arse every day. They had a shocking, outrageous sense of humour, but the first target was always themselves.”

Taken aback by interpretations
Cassuto counts himself among those French readers who were taken aback to see how Charlie Hebdo cartoons – often featuring racial stereotypes with over-exaggerated facial features – were being interpreted.

“It is very difficult for non-French to understand what it was really about, what it stood for, what it meant to its readers. They were the stark enemies of racists, of the far right, of white supremacists. They may have gone after religious institutions, after the jihadists and the extremists. They attacked the symbols and the metaphors of extremism. But it was never about the faith or the individuals of a faith. They went after prejudice of any kind.”

By Thursday morning Cassuto’s team had to decide how its next show would deal with the Paris attack, and had yet to weigh up conflicting pressures suddenly imposed on satirists. Not least of all, the imperative not to elevate the Charlie Hebdo massacre above other sad events simply because it hit close to home.

“The media talking about the media is something we have to be careful about,” Cassuto said. “There are other concerns, other dangers, other tragedies. Let’s not look at our own navels too much either.”

Even among satirical creations themselves, those dangers were top of mind at the end of this week, among them the dangers of being selective in condemnation.

“Hopefully all this anger at despicable killings will also come out next time the US decides to randomly bomb some brown people,” tweeted local political puppet Chester Missing on Thursday afternoon, hours after warning that “shouting freedom of speech without also shouting about racism, Eurocentrism, sexism is like organising an orgy but forgetting to buy condoms”.

Also on Thursday, satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, who through alter egos mocked and caricatured apartheid and its leaders with a surprising lack of reprisal or censorship, marshalled his thoughts about the dangers of such a profession.

“More often than not, democratic freedoms of speech have offered a safe passage, but those who tiptoe through this unknown armed only with humour as their weapon of mass distraction must understand how badly it could end,” Uys wrote.

“Urban terror as a career move for fanatics shows how Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame congeals into hours of infamy. The world morphs into a stunned neighbourhood as social media reflects the opinions, prejudice and common sense of a world not yet used to the fact that bombs and news can break in the palm of our hands.

“Censorship now happens in many subtle ways. The bigger fear is self-censorship where the fear of violent retaliation, no matter how small, mutes the voice and cripples the word. Nothing is beyond satire. There are a million ways to find the target without igniting the mines under our feet.

“Journalists must write. Cartoonists must cartoon. Readers must read. And everyone must stand up and be counted. Then there will be more exclamation marks of question than question marks of fear.”

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Phillip De Wet
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