“You’re him,” he said. “You’re Jonathan, the genius journalist. How do you manage to be sharp, insightful, topical and humorously critical every week?”
“Well, um,” I blushed.
“I’m your biggest fan,” the man gushed. “Hang on, I’m your second biggest fan, my wife’s your biggest fan. She’s going to be really tickled. I must call her.”
I was at a party, minding my business at the table of snacks, when Second Biggest Fan bounded up to me, grabbed my hand and pumped it up and down.
Second Biggest Fan and Biggest Fan made their way towards me. I dusted sausage roll crumbs off my jacket. I’ve never had a fan before. Now I’ve got two. What do I say?
I smiled at Biggest Fan, ready to be gushed over.
She shook her head. “You. Are. Not. Zapiro!”
It was the first but not the last time I was mistaken for Zapiro. I suppose there aren’t too many short, middle-aged Jewish journalists with receding hairlines called Jonathan in Cape Town.
- Read: Stage fright to success: Zapiro on 21 years with the M&G
- Listen: Extraordinary Life: Zapiro
- Watch: Zapped: World War Zuma
- Look: SA cartoonists honour legendary Zapiro
I’m about to come face to face with my doppelgänger. Madiba in full jive mode is painted on the wall of Zapiro’s studio, which is in the shadow of Table Mountain.
Zapiro is South Africa’s Don Quixote. He has taken up his pen to defend the vulnerable, honour heroes, point fingers at the corrupt and poke fun at our quirky country and its eccentric people – and in the process he has angered Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Toys-R-Us. If the previously mooted Media Appeals Tribunal had taken off, Zapiro would have been Accused Number One.
Today Zapiro is more Don Cough’ote, spluttering and coughing. “I feel a bit woolly,” he says.
Friday marks the coming of age of his cartoons for the Mail & Guardian. In February 1994, he joined Stephen Francis and Rico of Madam & Eve as one of the publication’s official cartoonists. Twenty-one years later he’s drawn just more than 1 000 M&G cartoons (the one published in this issue is his 1 009th cartoon, give or take a cartoon or two) in a portfolio of nearly 5 000 cartoons.
These cartoons have triggered debate, caused a lampooned bootlicker to stay in bed for three days, inspired a phone call from one president and a lawsuit or four from another, led to a Harry Belafonte bear hug and caused violence … to Zapiro himself.
Zapiro flinches when he talks about his first M&G cartoon. “I have painful memories of it. I had cartoonists’ block and overdid it. It was crowded with puns and details that I added to cover my bases. I stuffed it up. It was the equivalent of fluffing your lines on opening night.”
But once he was over the stage fright he had a golden patch, producing some of the country’s most powerful and poignant cartoons in the run-up to the 1994 election. Like the one of two aliens checking out ox wagons in laager formation in outer space. The one alien turns to the other and explains: “It’s the Volkstaat. They finally proposed a region where they’re the majority.” Or the one headlined “Negotiating in Liquid Assets” with Mangosuthu Buthelezi dipping his pen in the blood of victims of political violence to sign the election pact. There’s the Election Day cartoon with a grinning Mandela as a sun shining on the new South African flag. The apartheid flag is in the dustbin.
Zapiro’s got a comic’s timing, a journalist’s nose for news, an artist’s eye (and flair) and a wordsmith’s ability to play with language. He also carries a satirist’s political punch, appreciates nuance and is a master of metaphor. Most of all he’s got chutzpah. He nails it, which is why a Zapiro cartoon is either followed by a guffaw or a gasp – but usually both: a guffawsp.
After school, Zapiro studied architecture. He was politically aware but not yet politically active. In his fourth year, he travelled to Europe and decided to seek out one of his two cartoon heroes, Asterix‘s Uderzo, and Tintin‘s Hergé (see below).
Zapiro returned to South Africa inspired; determined to become a cartoonist, he switched to graphic design. But the army had other plans. After a lengthy attempt to keep them at bay he eventually received a letter stamped “Deferment Denied” in red, ordering him to report for his call-up.
“It was a crisis. The alternatives just weren’t alternatives: jail, exile or hiding. So I went.” But Zapiro decided to make a stand and refused to carry a gun. “I knew I had to find the strength to face the persecution that awaited me. I was regarded as the camp communist, who had to be ground into the dust.”
The cartoon treadmill
From a corner of his studio Zapiro takes a piece of wood and lead pipe that has been fashioned into a rifle. He was given this by an officer and ordered to carry it. It kept falling to pieces and in the middle of a parade he would fix it. “It caused a lot of laughter and I used it as a way of subverting the system. People who were initially against me became my supporters.”
To survive, Zapiro had turned himself into a walking cartoon.
He was sent to a drawing office, where he refined his cartooning skills, produced innocuous get-well cards and pilfered stationery, which he used to produce, poetically, End Conscription Campaign material.
In 1983, while still in the army, he joined the United Democratic Front and persuaded soldiers to sign the Front’s signature campaign, A Million Signatures Against the Tricameral Parliament. He became increasingly active in politics.
In 1988 he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and went to New York, where he joined the ANC. After two-and-a-half years, he returned to South Africa to pick up his pen in the struggle.
His first cartooning gig was with the alternative South newspaper, producing two cartoons a week. In 1994 he was working for the M&G and the Sowetan, which wanted five editorial cartoons, five letters-to-the-editor illustrations and five quips. He was on a cartoon treadmill, working from the crack of dawn until late at night. “Sometimes when you work under pressure you produce something powerful but there were times I had to wing it and produced some half-baked cartoons.”
He gave up the Sowetan when he took up cartooning for the Sunday Times in 1998, a move that prompted a call from an unexpected person.
“I was sitting at my desk when I received a call and was told to hold for the president. I thought I was being set up and carried on drawing when a familiar voice said (Zapiro mimics Mandela): ‘Hello. Is that Zapiro? This is President Mandela.'”
Mandela told him he was upset that he wouldn’t get his daily dose of Zapiro in Parliament because the Sowetan had had an arrangement with the Cape Argus to republish Zapiro’s cartoons.
Mandela was just one of many Zapiro fans.
“I often think I’m anonymous but there are times when people want autographs and selfies with me. I appreciate the feedback.”
The reaction isn’t always so gracious. He was at the CNA in Johannesburg for a book launch when a man walking past on the other side of the window saw him. “Suddenly there was a flash of recognition and his face gnarled up into a grotesque snarl and he lifted his middle finger.”
Zapiro was mortified. “There are people who really hate me,” he says.
‘That’s your job’
People shun him because of his anti-Zionism, which saw him being the subject of a cartoon. “There was a picture of me on the phone saying, ‘I’ll be at the anti-Israel demonstration just after I drop my kids at the Zionist school.”‘
“I thought it was quite good,” he says.
But some critiques have been bloodier. He was beaten up on the World Cup Fan Walk by someone who recognised him and set a bouncer on him. “I received two really telling blows and was attacked with a black vuvuzela. There was blood everywhere.”
Zapiro reckons it was because he’d stepped into the Prophet Muhammad furore with his own cartoon. “It was four years after the 2006 Danish cartoons. I thought some of the cartoons were awful but I supported their right to draw. In 2010, I believed Muslims were fairly empowered in South Africa and I could enter the debate. I certainly didn’t come from an Islamaphobic place.”
He says that in light of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter it’s more important than ever to assert the right to freedom of expression. “If a cartoon incites violence or killing then it’s legitimate to shut it down, but if it works and can be justified – even if it’s insulting – it’s okay. I don’t have qualms about offending religious groups and individuals. I will fight against those curbs of freedom of expression.”
Zapiro does cross more lines than most cartoonists and another hugely controversial cartoon is his “Rape of Lady Justice” published in the Sunday Times in 2008, which showed President Jacob Zuma unbuckling his trousers and getting ready to rape justice.
“Zuma and [ANC secretary general Gwede] Mantashe responded by saying: ‘But we respect the judiciary’.” In his next cartoon, which appeared in the M&G, Zapiro “prodded the beast” and produced a similar “Lady Justice” cartoon but with Zuma saying: “Before we get started I just want to say how much we respect you …”
When Mandela called Zapiro in 1998, Zapiro used it as an opportunity to tell him that he had been critical of the ANC and the government. Mandela responded: “Well, that is your job.”
Zuma doesn’t seem to hold this view. He slapped Zapiro with a R7-million lawsuit for the “Lady Justice” cartoon on top of three lawsuits – at R5-million a pop – for cartoons about Zuma’s rape trial. After six years, the lawsuits fizzled out.
It was a victory but Zapiro was disappointed. “We had to prove we were justified in saying Zuma was about to rape – metaphorically – the justice system. I was looking forward to raising those issues in court.”
Zapiro has added the Zuma showerhead to the political lexicon. It has taken on a life of its own with Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema singing “the Showerman is giving us trouble” to special showerhead dance moves, and sign language interpreters have been seen using the showerhead as a symbol for Zuma.
Fear and compliments
Photographer Karina Turok, Zapiro’s wife, and their son walk into the studio. Zapiro tells them that I had put together a podcast for the M&G on Zapiro, who was nominated by author Helen Walne as an Extraordinary Life.
“You sound just like my dad,” Zapiro’s son tells me.
“Oh, that podcast,” smiles Karina. In the podcast I’d asked cartoonist Andy Mason what scares Zapiro.
“Karina,” he said without hesitating.
“I was so sure he was going to say ‘deadlines’,” Zapiro says. “Karina is a formidable woman but I’m more petrified of deadlines. And even scarier than deadlines is being boring, which is what somebody wrote about my first cartoon for the M&G. She was right.”
Zapiro walks me out of his house and points to his gate. “Harry Belafonte walked through those gates. I got a call from his agent saying Harry wants to meet you. He arrived in a big coat in summer and gave me a big bear hug. ‘I was expecting a black man,’ he told me. ‘God has a sense of humour.’ He wanted to meet me because of a cartoon I had drawn about Colin Powell. He told me he couldn’t imagine a white guy had drawn that. That was one of the best compliments I ever got.”
He grins: “It’s been a crazy, crazy ride.”
According to Zapiro, cartoonists need to:
- Think laterally, something he was taught by his high school maths teacher Ticky de Jager. “You need to put A and B together and come up with something unexpected. It’s the most important part of being a cartoonist,” says Zapiro.
- Think in metaphors, which is what he learnt from studying architecture.
- Have a passion for politics, which he learnt from his mother, Gaby Shapiro, after whom the Claremont branch of the ANC is named.
- Say something, which he picked up from soaking up the work of Dave Marais, a cartoonist in the Cape Times from the 1950s to the 1970s. “He really is one of our unsung heroes; he was a genius of South African cartooning and has a huge presence in my work.”
Cartoonists Zapiro has rubbed (and almost rubbed) shoulders with:
Uderzo: In his fourth year of studying architecture, Zapiro travelled to Paris and decided to seek out the genius behind Asterix and one of his cartoon heroes. I found his work address. “I got lost, and when I got to his studio he had left.” Zapiro had Uderzo’s home address and decided to go there.
“I got there at 10.55pm. I was a scruffy student. I stood there with my finger hovering above his doorbell. Eventually I plucked up the courage and rang it. He answered.
“I gave him this spiel about me being a South African cartoonist and wanting to see him. Please don’t let him be in pyjamas, I thought. He was in a suit but he didn’t understand a word of English. Fortunately, his daughter could. I showed him my plastic-bound portfolio and he said, ‘Très bien, très bien.’ I wonder what I would do if someone rocked up outside my door at 11pm?
Hergé: The day after meeting Uderzo, Zapiro travelled to Brussels to find his “real hero”, Hergé of Tintin fame. “I got cold shivers when I arrived at the studio and saw the red-and-white rocket in the foyer. Unfortunately, Hergé was ill that day but his assistant showed me around the studio.”
Art Spiegelman: As a Fulbright scholar, he spent a semester studying under the cartoonist legend behind the graphic novel Maus.