BOOK REVIEW: Zapiro’s scathing simplicity cuts to the bone
Satirist’s latest two books include a personal element about the Jacob Zuma disaster — the former president’s attempts to sue him
SA'sbest-known cartoonist, Zapiro, has just published two fresh compilations, WTF: Capturing Zuma — a cartoonist’s tale, documenting his coverage of the rise and fall of Zuma from 1997 to early 2018, and Let the Sunshine In, which catalogues the year from October 2017.
Read together, WTF: Capturing Zuma — a cartoonist’s tale is more compelling. Zapiro has written accompanying text narrations to the cartoons, explaining his take on the context of events or clarifying the concept’s rationale. “Beyond the big political issues, it’s a story which weaves in my own smaller story,” he says.
And Zapiro’s stories are interesting, often intriguing. Most notably so in covering the background to, and the unravelling of, the two lawsuits brought against him by former president Jacob Zuma. The first, in 2006, claiming R15m for impugning Zuma’s dignity in three pieces satirising Zuma’s behaviour and testimony during his rape trial, represented an unwanted world record against a cartoonist. “It felt bizarre, worrying, and a bit flattering all at the same time.”
Zuma sued him a second time over his Rape of Lady Justice cartoon, which appeared in the Sunday Times in December 2008. So, when an amended summons was served on him in 2010, he commented to the sheriff, “‘Is that a***hole suing me again?’ The poor guy cracked up laughing.”
The narration may be nonchalant and self-deprecating in tone, but a picture paints a thousand words, and seeing the collated visuals cuts to the bone: the scathing simplicity is more powerful than deeply researched books like Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers.
There is a resounding anger in much of Zapiro’s best work. Indeed, anger motivates the mojo of political satirists, as recently acknowledged by Edel Rodriguez of Time and Eli Valley of The Daily Beast, creators of notable satire of Donald Trump and his administration. But Zapiro adds nuances to this: “I’m very angry at the ANC. But cartoonists are motivated by moral outrage. And deadlines. And the fear of events overtaking one.”
This explains his obsessive radar for the news, and an instinct for its impending drama. In his studio, multiple radio stations play simultaneously in the background, and a computer is poised for online or television news feeds. His ears prick up as a barely audible bulletin announces that Vytjie Mentor is backtracking on her testimony at the Zondo state capture inquiry. Before the segment ends, Zapiro is ready with an idea: “I’m going to call her Flaky Mentor”.
Zapiro credits many influences, such as the legendary Australian-American cartoonist Pat Oliphant, whose career spans more than 50 years; Gado, the most syndicated editorial cartoonist in Africa; and Art Spiegelman, creator of the Holocaust graphic novel Maus, under whom Zapiro studied in 1989 whilst on a Fulbright scholarship.
He most admires the work of The Guardian’s Steve Bell, who portrayed John Major as an ironic, useless Superman, bursting from a telephone booth with underpants over his suit. Bell’s underpants device sparked Zapiro’s idea to create a shower mnemonic affixed to Zuma’s head.
He incorporated it intermittently at first, but when readers inundated Zapiro with queries as to where the shower had gone, he realised, “I’ve got a signature device here, my underpants equivalent”.
There are some 1,000 cartoons in WTF and Let the Sunshine In. Zapiro’s voluminous output testifies that his symbols and metaphors have permeated SA's media landscape for a long time. Let the Sunshine In is Zapiro’s 23rd annual — published like clockwork since 1996 — and WTF is his fourth thematic compilation. His works have run in all the country’s major newspapers, spanning the past quarter century.
“Being at the Mail & Guardian when they were at the heart of things, appearing in the Sowetan for a decade at the beginning of the new SA, and then in the Sunday Times — I had this incredible spread of readership and attention. I’ve been very lucky.”
In the formative stage of his career he was at the Cape struggle newspaper South. His work there led him to be detained without trial in 1988. So, if there was any luck, it was hard-earned.
At present he appears only in the Daily Maverick but is still prolific, crafting about four pieces a week. “I love working with Daily Maverick — a major journalistic force in recent years, and key in bringing down the Guptas and Zuma”.
As a snapshot chronology and catalogue of seminal political machinations over the past 15 years, WTF is an important cautionary contribution, a reminder that the zeitgeist of a nation turns ugly with the creep of venality. Let the Sunshine In reflects the gradual stabilisation of the country’s spirits — President Cyril Ramaphosa features often as the new Black Panther superhero — but it’s too soon to know how wide the curtains have been pulled.
Coincidentally, the renowned American cartoonist Rob Rogers has just released Enemy of the People: A Cartoonist’s Journey. Rogers, fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in mid-June 2018 for his cartoons critical of Trump, believes “we need satire and editorial cartoons more now than ever.”
But amid the blurring of pencils and morals, Zapiro agrees that there is a line.
In creating a particularly hard-hitting piece, he believes there are two primary criteria: does it work, and can it be justified? "Additionally, because social media can be so destructive, over the last three to four years I’ve been asking a third question: ‘Will the negative consequences obscure the political message?’ If so, the controversial angle becomes counterproductive.”
Zapiro elicits acrimony and admiration. The explosiveness of cartoons — making powerful political points or sparking a deep emotional reaction — is best illustrated by the charged global debates surrounding the Prophet Mohammed caricatures. He did one in 2010, and received six death threats.
Three years later, Victor Navasky, editor of American progressive political and cultural weekly The Nation, compiled 15 Historic Cartoons That Changed The World. Zapiro’s Rape of Lady Justice comes in at number 15, bracketed among the elite global work of the last two centuries.
Former US President Barack Obama’s oration at the Mandela memorial in 2013 was portrayed in withering contrast to the embarrassing, abject Zuma under his shower. Obama sent Zapiro a personal note saying, “Thanks for a wonderful cartoon.”
Nelson Mandela, then president, called him in 1997, not to remonstrate but to express disappointment that Zapiro would no longer appear in the Cape Argus. Zapiro regretted that his pieces had become more critical of Mandela and the ANC. “‘Oh, but that is your job’, he replied. I’ve never had a more meaningful endorsement of my role as a cartoonist.”