Capturing the character

South Africa’s leading political cartoonist, Jonathan Shapiro, who signs himself Zapiro, was recently in Jo’burg to “tour” his new collection of the year’s cartoons, Rhodes Rage (Jacana). The works in the book are drawn from his cartoons for the Sunday Times, the Times and of course the Mail & Guardian. Zapiro showed me his new mini-sculpture, a figure of President Jacob Zuma, which he has developed with sculptor and animator Judd Simontov. It’s a follow-up to their popular Madiba figure, and is soon to be joined by Julius Malema and Desmond Tutu. “It’s so exciting seeing these things come out in 3D,” said Zapiro, while confessing that Zuma’s showerhead did give them some technical trouble. He reminisced about his two decades of cartooning for newspapers, including the time one editor changed the words in that day’s Zapiro cartoon to make it less offensive and “made it unintelligible”. The editor, though, laughs Zapiro, obviously thought it was successful, because “he did it a second time! And then after that he wouldn’t take my calls.”

Another year, another Zapiro annual?

I’ve done this every year since 1996. So this is the 20th one.

That’s a hell of a lot of work. A thousand cartoons, at least.

Yes, looking back now it is … sjoe [shakes his head]. I did the Sowetan for 11 years, I’ve done the M&G for 21 years, and the Sunday Times since 1998.

So how many a week, now?

I do four a week – the M&G, the Sunday Times, then two for the Times. There was a short period in the past when I was doing seven a week. It nearly drove me crazy!

How do you capture the likenesses of people in caricature form?

In the early days, for me, besides photographs, obviously, it was TV and freeze-frame. If I didn’t have the chance to see them myself I’d watch them on TV. Seeing them move is very important — a particular gesture, a kind of body language. With Juju, I didn’t know him from a bar of soap, but in 2008 when he said “We’ll kill for Zuma”, I tuned into a speech that he made and watched that very carefully. I got this thing of the big upper lip, and I watched the way his cheeks push his face forward, and I did sketches. That was one of the few times I managed to define the character quite quickly. By comparison, it took me a long time to get Madiba’s face. It took me two months after he came out of jail. My early drawings of him are shocking!

So some people are much harder to capture as a caricature than others.

Yes. Some people have really discernible features and others don’t. Robert Mugabe, for instance, really does have certain things that you can pick on — the way that lip curls up, that little moustache, the hooded eyes. But it’s interesting how, now, perhaps because of the internet and all that, how a certain look can develop for a character. I think cartoonists gravitate towards a certain look. Somebody finds something that can be used as a key element, and it sort of seeps into the general psyche. George W Bush was a very interesting case study for me. He was quite an ordinary looking guy, hard to caricature. But as he got cartooned more and more, by different cartoonists, the eyes got smaller and smaller, and somebody picked up on a little flare in the ears and started pulling [gestures to show Bush’s ears getting bigger and bigger] … and somebody picked up on the upper lip and started pulling … and this incredibly distorted character developed, around the world, but it was instantly recognisable as George W Bush.

You draw on all sorts of things for ideas and references in your work — like your recent use of the Daumier image, which I think you’ve used before.

Yes, it’s a favourite! Being a cartoonist is a combination of many different things. I’ve got strong points and I’ve got weak points. I think back to when I started out, and Derek Bauer was cartooning for the Weekly Mail. Graphically, Derek was so far ahead of all of us, and for five or six years he had the fire in him. But Derek was a wild man and he didn’t really feel a responsibility to almost anything, so when he wasn’t that sure of the politics he’d just do whatever he felt like doing as a cartoon. I’m much more concerned about the politics, and the detail of the politics. I have a much deeper base in the politics. So that’s something I always bring to the cartoon. Derek, super-brilliant as he was, didn’t really care about the politics as such. You’ve got to ask yourself: How wide are you trying to spread your net? I started out as an activist cartoonist. Later, when I went to study in the US, and I’d never studied any of this before, I consciously made my style more accessible. I love the wideness of the ambit of the cartoonist.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.


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