Shortly after Shaun Abrahams, the head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), announced that his office will appeal a high court ruling that corruption charges be reinstated against President Jacob Zuma, I read a Facebook post calling him out as spineless.
The corporeal nature of the criticism was taken by one viewer of the post as licence to indulge in body shaming. “His forehead is underlined!! Ha ha ha ha!!!!”
Yes, Abrahams is a chiskop, and, yes, he also has Groucho Marx eyebrows. So what. The ad hominem doesn’t take us anywhere. Except, of course, if one is an editorial cartoonist to whom bodily quirks – a bulbous nose, big ears, eyebrows like shrubbery – are grist to the mill.
This week Jonathan Shapiro, this country’s favourite critic with an ink brush, prompted outrage with a somewhat unimaginative editorial cartoon portraying Abrahams as a monkey chained to a hurdy-gurdy controlled by Zuma.
In a now familiar rehearsal of the culture wars that have been a feature of the Zuma years, pundits have branded Shapiro a racist for his use of a sullied visual trope (monkey) to land a critical punch. “Who, me?” the busy cartoonist has incredulously replied. “Never.” Cue controversy.
This contentious cartoon is not the first in which Shapiro portrays a human subject as an animal. In a 1987 cartoon for the struggle newspaper, South, he depicted a Chamber of Mines boss as a portly pig in pinstripes sucking on a cigar. It traded in a well-worn cliché, which is what cartoonists do.
Last year, in a drawing published in The Times, he offered a fair likeness of newly appointed Abrahams accepting a CV from a prospective NPA job applicant, a monkey in a suit named Naledi Homimid. It was awkwardly funny.
- See Zapiro’s latest cartoon HERE
This is possibly Shapiro’s defining attribute. What he lacks in visual exuberance – he has never matched the ferocity and verve of this paper’s early cartoonist Derek Bauer – Shapiro effortlessly makes up for in his straightened satires of life in the “new” Republic.
Zuma’s accession to power has been a boon for him.
Given his prolific output every week, it is perhaps unsurprising that Shapiro should on occasion falter. His decision to draw on the hurdy-gurdy gag, a well-worn scenario from the history of editorial cartooning, is a case in point.
The figure of the itinerant organ grinder with his monkey was once a well-known sight on New York streets. Dating back to the mid-1800s, these low-rent circus entertainers were quickly seized upon by metropolitan cartoonists who recognised a conceit in the crafty monkey tethered to a devious master.
In 1872, the political magazine Harper’s Weekly ran a cartoon accusing the New York Tribune of touting for the Democratic Party. The idea has been serially rehearsed in American political cartoons.
Last year John Cole drew Donald Trump grinding out a tune of “bigotry, fear and lies” that a glum American media (the monkey in the cartoon) is compelled to report on. A few years earlier, syndicated cartoonist Taylor Jones depicted president George W Bush playing a Christian song from a barrel organ for a dancing monkey in a bowler hat, Tony Blair.
That the animal likeness can offend, even in well-worn genre studies like the hurdy-gurdy gag, goes without saying.
The Washington Post last year hastily retracted a benign cartoon by Ann Telnaes depicting failed Senator Ted Cruz’s two daughters as monkeys on leashes. The hurdy-gurdy cartoon was a riff on Cruz’s unctuous use of his children in his ultimately failed presidential bid.
The United States and its weird politics is an ocean away from South Africa, as are its social customs and street manners. To wit: Did Shapiro err in using an imported editorial idea to comment on a local issue? The answer: it depends how much you believe the idea of the cunning organ grinder to be an imported one, and not of this place.
Hurdy-gurdies were only outlawed in New York in 1936, by which time they had entered the cultural lexicon – one that Shapiro appears to be enthralled by. It is, however, difficult to trace reliable details of these street entertainers locally.
“Thank goodness, there were no street organs in Johannesburg, and more merciful still, no German bands,” quips journalist and stockbroker Louis Cohen in his 1924 book, Reminiscences of Johannesburg and London. His insight doesn’t quite seal the issue.
In the 1870s, when names such as John Molteno and Saul Solomon inflamed passions the way Zuma and Abrahams do today, a local cartoonist drew a hurdy-gurdy gag attacking their campaign for responsible government. The two men are shown dancing to a tune for Sir Henry Barkly, the new governor of the Cape Colony.
The idea of the hurdy-gurdy flits in and out of focus in our musical culture too. “In 1953, sportsman-turned-singer Jake Ntuli, the newly crowned Empire flyweight boxing champion, guested with the Manhattan Brothers on the boogie-woogie song Organ Grinder Swing,” writes Gwen Ansell in her book Soweto Blues.
This celebratory song is not without cheek. It dangerously flirts with racial stereotypes when the Brothers invoke a refrain from the children’s song Eeny, meeny, miny, moe to account for Ntuli’s fighting prowess. It works.
More recently, Watkin Tudor Jones, aka Ninja of Die Antwoord, summoned the spirit of the hurdy-gurdy in his song Organ Grinder. Does it validate the blackface allegation pitched at Jones, or – as they say on the hill where Rhodes fell – trouble it?
Perhaps Brett Murray’s controversial 2012 painting The Spear might hold some clues. Writing at the time of the hullabaloo, Achille Mbembe remarked: “To pretend to critique contemporary forms of patriarchy with the categories used in the past to dehumanise the black man is, at best, stupid – a cruel lack of imagination.”
So how does one imaginatively stick it to the man without reiterating old clichés? One source of a possible answer lies in the joint settlement agreement reached between Zuma and Murray. Both sides agreed “deep wounds created by apartheid have divided South Africans on racial lines”. There is no revelation in this, but its truth value is plain and clear – and traduced every other day by Penny Sparrow & co.
The warring parties in 2012 also agreed that the dispute involved “balancing between two competing constitutional rights, to human dignity and freedom of artistic expression, both of which have a crucial place in our democracy”.
This, on the one hand, means parking sensitivities about criticism – we are ruled by a thin-skinned and litigious potentate. But it also makes clear that images of people portrayed as animals, however funny, key into colonial arcana that continue to haunt our present.
Is Shapiro done with? Murray’s career didn’t end with his painting, just as Zuma’s indiscretions didn’t stop. The same is true of Shapiro. His service record is, in the main, exemplary.
But even a seasoned critic like Shapiro can make a mistake, one that reveals not only the faultlines of a divided nation, but also, possibly, the looming horizon of career obsolescence.
It would be a shame to see Zapiro go, but our current impasse demands new and imaginative ideas to puncture the fatal tyranny of power.