Thursday, April 30, 2009

Zapiro says showerhead will stay

Supporters of South Africa's next president are fighting against a barrage of caustic satire, raising worries of a free-speech crackdown.

South Africa's most notorious cartoonist has a message for Jacob Zuma: Like it or not, the shower head is here to stay.

Jonathan Shapiro, known by his pen name, Zapiro, has infuriated the country's next president by repeatedly portraying him with a shower nozzle above his head, a scathing reference to the 2006 rape trial where Mr. Zuma testified that he took a shower to protect himself from AIDS after he had sex with an HIV-positive woman.

Mr. Zuma, who will be inaugurated as South Africa's new president next Saturday, has filed two lawsuits against the caustic cartoonist. Members of the ruling party have demanded that Zapiro be more respectful of their leader's dignity as he assumes the highest office in the land.

But in his latest cartoon, published in a Sunday newspaper, Zapiro defiantly sketched a shower nozzle above Mr. Zuma's head again. "Yes, he'll still have that shower," the cartoonist vowed.

In a country where Mr. Zuma has a near-monopoly on power, where his ruling African National Congress has just recorded an overwhelming majority for the fourth consecutive election, fearless satirists such as Zapiro have emerged as the true opposition.

South Africa has a long tradition of biting satire. Political commentary here is sharper and more acerbic than almost anywhere else in the world. But many of Mr. Zuma's supporters are unhappy with the mocking portraits of their hero, and there is mounting pressure on the satirists to become a little more deferential.

It's a titanic battle: South Africa's powerful politicians pitted against its relentless satirists. And so far the mockers are not backing down.

Even the business sector has a tradition of political satire. One of the country's most popular fast-food chains, Nando's, often uses its advertising campaigns to poke fun at politicians. Last week Nando's broadcast a television commercial that lampooned the bombastic leader of the ANC youth league, Julius Malema. The youth league was outraged, calling it "disgusting" and "racist" and complaining that it "undermined" their leader.

When the league threatened to mobilize its members to take militant action against the fast-food chain, Nando's promised to remove the commercials within 24 hours. The league declared victory. Then the chain cheekily unveiled its new commercials: an identical version, except with the puppet's face blurred and his voice distorted.

Even as Mr. Zuma celebrated his election triumph last week, audiences were flocking to see a comedy at Johannesburg's venerable Market Theatre that ridiculed the ANC leader and his comrades.

The play, MacBeki, is a comic version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, making fun of Mr. Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki for the backroom intrigues and betrayals that marked their rise to power. Audiences roar with laughter in a climactic scene when the character known as MacZum emerges on stage with a shower nozzle on his head.

The playwright, Pieter-Dirk Uys, has been lampooning South Africa's politicians since the apartheid era. But when he created a Jacob Zuma puppet that sprayed water on audiences from a Zapiro-style shower head, the ANC sent him a letter, complaining that it was "offensive."

He shot back that the ANC's leader should be protecting freedom of speech, rather than filing lawsuits against cartoonists.

Another source of satire is the South African fake-news website,, which takes humorous jabs at Mr. Zuma's polygamy and other foibles. It features headlines such as "Zuma campaigning to gain two-thirds majority among his wives."

But by far the most controversial satire in recent years was a Zapiro cartoon last year that accused Mr. Zuma of interfering in the judicial system during his corruption prosecution. It portrays the ANC leader unbuckling his pants and preparing to rape the metaphorical figure of Lady Justice, who is being held down by his political allies. "Go for it, boss!" they urge him.

Mr. Shapiro acknowledges that the cartoon would not be publishable in many countries, even the democracies of the West. "I want to fight hard to keep this amazingly open space that we've had for the past 15 years," he said in an interview.

"There's always been a good hurly-burly in South African politics, but it's changing now," he said. "Only in the past seven or eight months have I been called a racist. Suddenly there's a concerted campaign to smear me and others who question things. Some warning lights are flashing for freedom of expression."

Mr. Shapiro is a lifelong ANC supporter and anti-apartheid activist whose cartoons were often banned by the apartheid regime. He was briefly jailed in the apartheid era on allegations that he helped plan a birthday party for Nelson Mandela. Now the ANC has turned against him, but those pressures are nowhere near as bad as the repressive days of apartheid, Mr. Shapiro says.

Still, he believes that Mr. Zuma's lawsuits against him are one symptom of a growing chill in the political climate. Last fall he was taken to the country's human-rights commission and forced to defend his cartoons. At a meeting of the ANC youth league, one member threatened to "shoot him and kill him." The statement went unchallenged.

In an exchange with Mr. Shapiro on a radio program this year, Mr. Zuma accused the cartoonist of "invading my own dignity."

South Africa's state broadcasting network, SABC, recently prepared a special program on satire. "Are we too reverential of our politicians?" it asked. "Is a slow chilling effect taking hold of political humour in South Africa?"

The answer, apparently, was yes. The show was cancelled at the last minute and was never broadcast.

"Those in power don't like satire," commented one South African newspaper. Anyone who criticizes the ANC is "invariably tagged as counterrevolutionary, reactionary or even racist," it said.

The ANC's spokeswoman, Jesse Duarte, insists that she enjoys the satire of Zapiro and Pieter-Dirk Uys. "We must continue to laugh at ourselves," she told the Sunday Independent this weekend. "Zapiro is still doing satire. Nobody is about to stop him. Nobody wants to stop him." The Lady Justice cartoon, however, was "beyond the pale," she said. "You can look at the cartoon in two ways, figuratively or literally, and I looked at it literally."

Mr. Shapiro is convinced that satire will survive. "There is baying for our blood, but there's also a lot of support for us," he said.

"Don't worry about us. We're strong enough to resist. There are lots of us around, and we will fight hard."

4 Opinion(s):

Vince R said...

Azania's last light, the freedom of expression, is a guttering candle in a growing circle of darkness. The ZUMA has subdued the prosecuting authority and compromised the highest Court in the land: How much longer will a few petty free spirits be able to continue?

Anonymous said...

Nice post !

Anonymous said...

I see Zapiro's also on "the payroll"!

Typical anti-independence for the different Nations (anti-IFP, anti-VF)!


Wake up people!

He of difficult days said...

I am curious to see how far they will go to silence him.