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The absurdity of our daily lives, the pomposity of our politicians, the scandals and indiscretions that make us shake our heads and sigh: “You may as well laugh.” From fire-pools to fleeing dictators, from power outages to Parliamentary punch-ups, South Africa is a cartoonist’s dream, and no one captures its rollercoaster craziness as eloquently and bitingly as Zapiro. The most successful and influential cartoonist in South African history, he wields his acid-dipped nib with the dexterity of a swordfighter, fending off lawsuits and countering protests with the zeal of a revolutionary who knows his cause is just. If you haven’t yet been offended by a Zapiro cartoon, stick around: he takes aim at everybody, and your herd of sacred cows is next. An activist by inclination, a “patriotic sceptic” by instinct, Jonathan “Zapiro” Shapiro is a national treasure whose eagerly – and often fearfully – awaited cartoons are a reminder of the freedoms we need to cherish, and the laughter we need to unleash. In this candid and revealing conversation with Ruda, he looks back on his life of change and upheaval, compares Presidential attitudes to satire, and explains why, despite or maybe because of everything, he still feels happy to call South Africa home.
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the Change Exchange, and today I’m so happy to be speaking to someone I met probably … what … 20 years ago, Jonathan?
Jeez, I can’t remember when we met but …
It was a long time ago. Jonathan Shapiro, much better known to all of us as Zapiro the cartoonist and stirrer. Thank you for giving us time.
Great, it’s good to be with you.
Jonathan, we’re talking on the Change Exchange about Change, about decisions. About how one moves through life and what takes you where and how you come to those decisions. You were a white boy growing up in South Africa in the late 70s, 80s and you were destined for the army at that point?
Ja, you know there’s something about change that is either sometimes catalytic – like a big moment. Or there’s a sort of a osmotic change that is a slow, burning thing. And I had that slow-burner stuff for a long, long time before the army situation. I really think that my mother was the person who defined a lot of what I understood about the injustice of what was going on. But, as you said – a white boy growing up in a privileged white school, going to university – it takes something to actually move you out of that. As a child I even remember when Verwoerd died, and I was 8, I think. And I was in Sub B, grade 2.
I was in standard 6.
You don’t look it, but at that point Verwoerd died and I remember going to school and we had to pray for Verwoerd. Everyone had to drop their eyes and there was this great sadness, and for an eight year old all I knew was that this was a bad guy. I knew that from my mom, that this was a guy who was responsible for a lot of bad things that were happening to black people. That was all I understood and I looked around to try and get a sense of whether anyone else had that feeling, and I didn’t see it. And so there was a long, long period in my life where as a small minority within the white community and there were others, of course, who understood things, but not enough of us at a young age did anything about it.
But then you went to study architecture, at UCT?
I went to study architecture … I was really looking for some way to stay out of the army. Seriously.
Nice, long course?
I wanted to do something useful, but I really wanted to be a cartoonist from when I was a little kid and I thought architecture was a good marriage of sciences and arts and whatever, but really I wanted to be a cartoonist. And during my student years I was … I would say even though I felt strongly about the political situation, I was kind of apathetic in terms of what I did. I helped a little bit here and there with the odd campaign, I did a few posters for the left, I went on the marches … I remember finding an image of Madiba from a … in the library and it was from a banned book and making all the posters that the students carry. So I did a few things here and there, but not a helluva lot. And the big thing was that when I – in my fourth year – was really thinking … In the fourth year they encourage you to travel and to work, and in my travels I was already thinking maybe I should get the hell out of here. And I went …
This was about 1980? 1981? 1982?
My fourth year would be 1981.
Oh, it was the deep dark days of apartheid.
And was the army … I mean … what did it feel like to be a young man and know that that envelope was going to arrive?
For me, I was unrealistic about it. I always just thought I’ll get deferment, I’ll get my … I’ll keep my … I failed a semester …
I’ll think about it tomorrow?
And I pulled out of another semester, so I was a year behind. And I was starting to do better in architecture, but I also knew that I really, really wanted to be a cartoonist. So in my fourth year … Just before I left, I had a lecturer who said to me … He called me away from my work one night. I kept saying to him … He was going to be the one who was going to be examining me the next day … He was somebody … I was working for him, he was my lecturer, and he said: “Come, let’s go for a drive.” And I said: “Come on, easy – you know I’ve got to do work for the exam tomorrow?” And he said: “Let’s go.” He actually pulled me away and he said: “See how easy you are to distract.” And then we sat looking at the view, quite near the infamous Rhodes statue which has caused such a lot of trouble recently for good reason. And as we looked out over the Cape Flats, he said: “Are you passionate about architecture?” And I said: “I can’t really say I am.” “Are you passionate about cartooning?” And I said: “Absolutely.” So he said: “Well, go. Leave. Do that.” So that was part of it, and then when I’m travelling I decide to go visit some famous cartoonists. Just to see what comes out of it. So I went to try and visit Uderzo, who does Asterix. The artist – there was Goscinny and then Uderzo. And then I got lost.
This is now where? Paris?
Paris. I’m in Paris. The French are not in those days particularly helpful to someone who speaks English, and I’m walking around. I think it’s his studio and I mix up his studio and his home and eventually I landed up at his studio at night, because it got so late. And then I find out that his home is not that far away so I walk, but it still takes half an hour. I arrive at his doorstep of his house, his apartment, this posh area outside Paris at 22:55 and I literally had that kind of thing if somebody was filming me, my finger was going towards the buzzer thinking: “Can I do this?” And I thought I’m passing this way once – I’ve got to do this. And I rang the blooming doorbell. And luckily he was dressed. He comes to the door, very nice suit and I give him my whole spiel, I’m from South Africa and I’m a student but I want to be a cartoonist and I’m a huge admirer of yours and I’m sorry to arrive so late, but I got lost and I needed to see you … and he said: “Entree.” And I realised he couldn’t speak any English.
And his wife walks down the stairs – I assume it’s his wife – very grand staircase in this apartment. She’s also dressed, thank goodness. They’ve been out, or something. And then he says something about Afrique du Sud, and thank goodness as well, the door opens from outside and his daughter arrives. She’s about my age, 20, 21, she’s studying English at the Sorbonne and she then translated for us for about ten minutes. And he was so amazing! And that was a very key moment for me. I just thought: “I’m actually going to do this thing.”
But you came back to South Africa? You still finished the architecture?
No, I came back to South Africa and I said to my parents I’ve decided …
Ek skop op?
To give up. And they had paid for my studies and I had studied for five years and I had nothing to show for it. And I said … And we all knew that the army … by this time, as unrealistic as I was about the army I knew there could be a problem. And I said I really want go and study graphics – I want to be a cartoonist. And my parents were incredibly supportive. The just accepted that and they supported me … But unfortunately that wasn’t enough, so the academic people also supported me in both fine art and architecture, but the army started leaning on me immediately.
Did you have to go?
Well my case came before the army about five times, eventually arrived back with a massive red stamp saying: “We won’t hear this one more time, you will report for duty in three weeks’ time.” And that was it. And suddenly I was doing really well in graphics – that was where my heart was. And so I had to drop everything in the middle of my exams and I just decided to get as fit as I could, because I knew I was going … If I went into that army … I had to decide the usual thing: Do you go to jail – six years’ jail; you leave the country; you go underground? I couldn’t do any of those things. I just didn’t feel I had the capacity to do it or money or whatever. So I said I’m going to have to go to that army and I’m going to have to make some sort of stand.
And so, what did you do? How did you handle it?
Well I went to the first guy I saw had brass things on their shoulders – I didn’t know anything about it. And I said I’m new here, I’m not prepared to carry a gun. What do I do? And they kind of rolled their eyes and looked at each other and said you’ll know about it when the time comes. And I kept trying to fast-forward that moment, what’s going to happen? And he said: “You’ll know about it”. But by the time I really knew about it was when the corporals were kind of assigned to grind me into the dust. Because I was the one guy …
This was during basics? So they were just making you run to that tree and back and to that tree and back? And another so many push-ups and whatever?
Ja, basically there were 700 in that particular intake. And there were three Christian guys from different sets of Christian religions who had letters from their priests saying that they were non-committant, they were pacifists. I was the only one who was seen as the political opstoker. And so in those days I was the one and all the corporals knew that I was the guy they had to work over. So it was very tough for the first six or seven weeks.
And then? I see you’ve brought a prop?
Well, one Sunday afternoon the lieutenant decided enough was enough, and he spent his Sunday afternoon making this ridiculous object, which is a fake rifle – it’s a led pole – if you pick this thing up – it is heavy.
It is slightly heavier than a rifle, but it’s more or less the same weight as a rifle and it’s a ridiculous object. But I think it defined who I was by that time. I saw myself as someway standing up to the system. I kind of was a walking cartoon, because the guys would laugh at me … I would arrive with this thing and they would laugh. Especially it didn’t have those screws there, those were put on later by somebody who thought he was doing me a favour. I wanted it the way it was – it used to fall apart on the parade ground in hot weather and I would be and they’d say skouer geweer and you know … shoulder arms … and I’d be tonk tonk tonk and doing little sort of mechanics on the parade ground and so I was the laughing stock of the unit. And by that time they had finished grinding me into the dust and so it was just a joke. Especially when the corporal made me stand guard with the thing. He was really low IQ and I said to him: “It’s your responsibility if I stand guard with this thing.” And he screamed at me in Afrikaans and so off I went, in the ready position and I stood guard outside the most public area of the camp and he got into unbelievable trouble. It was the best double-takes I’ve seen. Because I’m standing there and people would be driving home from wherever they were and all the majors and generals and so they’d look and then see this guy and he’d look they were …
And so, did you have to spend the whole two years in the army?
Oh yeah. So the first while was really problematic, then there was the big joke period with this thing, and then I managed to get myself transferred to Cape Town, which was my home town and because I wasn’t doing duties with guns and whatever and that was … at that very time as I get transferred down there … And by this time I’m seeing myself as an activist or wannabe activist and I’m teaching myself about cartooning. And at that very moment, the United Democratic Front forms. So it was like a moment handed to me and I was able to grab it. I went to the launch – Alan Boesak was inspirational. I immediately joined the UDF and I was almost immediately arrested while I was in the army. So there’s this weird strange situation where the army then sent … they sent military observers to the trial where … there were 15 of us. Funny thing as well is that it was the first time anybody had ever been arrested under the Illegal Gatherings Act in cars. Because the Illegal Gatherings Act was two or more people gathered for a common purpose. We were in a motorcade. So we were the first ones in cars. So there was a bizarre … I was jumping up and down in my yellow UDF t-shirt and these military observers in white couldn’t … because I was now in the navy … in my brown uniform during the day and my UDF clothes whenever I could. Sticking up Free Mandela stickers inside the army. It was completely crazy.
And that changed your life forever?
Absolutely. It was … by that time I … My whole sense of myself was completely different. I felt like every spare moment was dedicated to the struggle. And I would work for any organisation where people needed cartoons, posters, pamphlets, stickers … And I was just doing the usual, you know, area committee – the UDF area committee general activism.
So your cartooning was never for its own sake. You saw it as a weapon? An instrument?
When I was growing up I was thinking of comics and cartoons. I was influenced by Giles and by Tin Tin and by Asterix and by Peanuts, and one political cartoonist, David Marais who is an unsung hero of political cartooning, the left wing, a cartoonist who worked in the Cape Times from the 1950s through to the 1970s, but my own cartooning was really just generally about cartooning. Until that period in the early 1980s, suddenly there was a real purpose for it. I felt I was an activist, cartoonist in equal measure for that period of six, seven, eight years.
And then you got a Fulbright Scholarship to go to America? How did that influence you?
Well, you know, by that time, if you have a period of six or seven years of activism, it’s pretty damn tiring. It’s exhausting and by that stage I’d been detained without trial by the security police and I wasn’t the only one in my family. So has my mother, and my sister on other occasions and lots of my friends, and we were really working ourselves to the bone. And we were harassed constantly, phones were tapped, friends were being taken in – people who were much more key in the movement were being taken in for long periods, we heard about torture and everything and it was very hard. It was also incredibly exciting, but I wanted to get a different perspective and I wanted to get some of that training that I never got because it was cut short by the army. So I applied – it was actually my girlfriend, who is now my wife Carina who suggested to me: “Why don’t you apply for a Fulbright?” And I said: “Oh, my academic record is …”
By that stage, strangely, I have been awarded a degree after the fact – anyone who started … I mean, this really fortuitous, it was just out of the blue. Anyone who started in 1977 or after and finished three years of architecture suddenly got the degree, as they split it into two degrees. So I was able to apply for a Fulbright because I had an undergrad degree – not that my academic record was good, but I had also a really good portfolio of work, I had good social … They were looking for people with good social involvement and aspirations of doing things in the social arena. And all of that was strong as anyone they got there, it was just that my academic record was just about as weak as anyone who has ever been given a Fulbright. And then one day they called me up, the Fulbright committee, and they said: “It looks as if you’ve applied to do a Masters? But we don’t even know if you need a Masters.” I mean, that’s the way you normally get a Fulbright. “How would you feel about a year of non-degree study at a school of your choice?”
What a gift!
In America. So I said thank you very much. And I applied to, it was accepted, at the school of visual arts in Manhattan – it was my first choice. And that was because Art Spiegelman, the great Art Spiegelman who did Maus, the Holocaust story in graphic novel form – about his own relationship with his father and his father and mother survived Auschwitz, and this had also changed my life to read that book, so that’s where I went. And a weird thing happened – on the day I arrived, I went to sign up, and that was the thing of course I was the most excited about. And they said: “Oh, Art Spiegelman? He kind of hasn’t taught here for about a year.”
So I was devastated for about a day and then regrouped, and thought there happened to be Will Eisner and Harvey Kurzman – two absolute giants of cartooning who are teaching here, so I’ll go to their classes and I loved that, and after a year of study there – I was doing really well now, really nailing all the courses and the school gave me a huge exhibition in New York and at a place that they normally reserve for the alumni of the school. And the head of the school happened to be named Rhodes, by the way, he comes up to me and he says is there anybody you’d like to meet. And I say: “Well there is, come to mention it.” And I told him the story about Spiegelman and he was very, very embarrassed and he immediately set up a meeting and I ended up doing an independent study with Spiegelman for a semester.
How fortuitous was that!
So I had been incredibly lucky in being taught by some of these great comic masters, not editorial cartoonists, but this all fed into this thing that is this genre of cartooning, which is a kind of language and a series of conventions and it’s a way of thinking.
It is a language, and you have to … your audience has to understand your language? You have to find the right … the right intonation, the right dialect?
I think so. When I was doing cartoons in the 1980s, my friend Andy Mason has described that period. Andy is a co-comics artist and also historian of South African cartooning – it’s actually a brilliant book called “What’s so funny?” and he described it as a period where the ink turned into blood. And we were influenced by the British graphic cartoonists, people like Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe, who were that spatter and that manic kind of craziness – there was only one cartoonist here who was able to match them graphically, and that was Derek Bauer. The great, great Derek Bauer. I don’t think politically so much he was an anarchist cartoonist, but he was phenomenal graphically, and I tried as well, and I felt I got a certain … I had more of a political understanding, political bent, but when I went to go and study in America I started to understand that you also need to be accessible so if you were going to hit them over the head with a savage graphic every day, it’s going to be hard to speak to people. So in a way if you don’t care so much, but you just want to produce real savage stuff, you don’t care so much how people are responding but what the dialogue is, then you can keep on doing that, so I deliberately pushed my cartoons towards a more accessible style and I learned that from some of the comics, the comics communication, the comic techniques and sort of a more subtle thing where you get that little thing to go off in your head to make a surprise connection. I learned a lot of that in America and when I came back, that’s what I tried to do.
I was just going to say … Coming back into this terribly fraught situation must have been really hard?
It was crazy. Even being there, when such violence was continuing, in New York … It was really difficult. I did an etching of myself kind of naked in this little frame of all the nice New York stuff, and on the outside of the frame, looking back towards what was going on, all the burning and killing that was happening in South Africa – so I was very much aware of that and I was very much aware of my privileged situation being there, studying, and I wanted to come back …
You never considered staying?
No, that was never part of it. And also, one agrees with Fulbright – there’s a little contract that you’re going to come home to your home country for at least two years and I never intended not to do that, that was always part of it, but what accelerated that, was that while we were away, as I said my then-girlfriend, we got married there, Carina and I, and while we were there, Madiba was released and organisations unbanned and it took us as much by surprise as it took everybody. I mean who knew, except for Madiba and a few other people what was actually going on? And we were devastated not to be – I mean, Cape Town is my home town – so everybody I knew and my family, they were all on the parade when Madiba was released – but thank goodness, he came to New York pretty quickly, so we were involved in the welcoming committee and we didn’t get to meet him. We saw him fairly close-up, but he was … you know … a million people trying to see.
And after that you could not come back.
Of course! So at least we got a chance to become involved and then we came home.
But how do you then … what is your role, because you’re no longer in opposition. You’re fighting against?
I tell you, I was pretty angry that the UDF structures … there were two things that happened in New York that started to shift my head a bit, and one was about the struggle and about what was going on. The one was that I was already angry with the ANC for dissolving the UDF, because the UDF was a very egalitarian grouping that had been doing a lot of the on the ground work during that period, so it’s not after the fact, like some people look back and go ‘maybe that wasn’t a good idea to dissolve the UDF’. For me, being there in New York when I heard that was happening, I said: “That’s crazy! That is crazy!” So even though I very much supported Madiba where the movement was going and all of that, I was already aware that there was something wrong. And that was the one thing, the other thing is how I saw people close ranks around Winnie when the UDF … before that had happened, the UDF had distanced themselves from Winnie Madikizela Mandela – she wasn’t … she was still Winnie Mandela in those days. And I thought: “Good.” Because we heard a whole lot about …
About Stompie …
What was happening, Stompie, and the Mandela Football Club, which was basically a bunch of thugs that she had surrounded herself with. And I saw how the ANC closed ranks around her in the ANC in exile. They said: “No, there must be some mistake.” And I thought there’s a dissonance between what’s going on on the ground and some of the people who are out of the country or in jail or whatever.
So when you came back … What did you do? Where did you find your place?
I found that some of those things made me feel a little disaffected, as it happened. And I didn’t really know what to do. I immersed myself in educational comics. We did three educational comics during that period. I had a little group and we did it as a collective. We did it as an Aids education, an early Aids education comic in 1992, and then in 1993 we did a child abuse prevention comic, and then in early 1994 we produced democracy. We started getting back into the whole idea as democracy approached I thought there may be a role for me. I did the official poster for the elections and I did a whole lot of election education stuff and I did cartoons for Die Suid-Afrikaan, which was the most progressive Afrikaans journal …
Antjie Krog was also involved with that?
Yes, Antjie was editing it at one point and Chris Louw, and so I was keeping my hand in that stuff and then early 1994 I get offered the coveted Weekly Mail slot as the cartoonist, which I always wanted. It was just about to change to the Mail & Guardian, so that period, 1994 then, as we became a democracy, I was really in the swing of becoming an editorial cartoonist.
So for the first time you were earning your living as a cartoonist?
For the Mail & Guardian, and Sowetan and then later the Sunday Times?
Yes. Well, Mail & Guardian in the beginning of 1994, and then the Sowetan offered me their slot in the middle of 1994, so that all began right at the beginning of democracy, and I had to suddenly speak to people at very different newspapers. I did not want to be schizoid, I didn’t want to have a different voice in these different papers. The Sowetan was 95%, 98% black readership, Mail & Guardian was predominantly white readership still and quite literate. So very different, and that was my big challenge. To find a way of speaking to people across … To try and work in the same sort of genre and speak to people across these different demographics and have a strong political voice that didn’t show me up as this white boy from Cape Town who’s speaking to people in Johannesburg and it was what was fantastic for me in terms of whether or not I succeeded that was for mainly the first seven or eight years that I was working at the Sowetan … If I ever went to Jo’burg people would say: “You’re Zapiro! I thought you were black?” So it did work.
But those were almost the good years, if you look back at it now … It was the years of idealism. It was also very violent, especially in the beginning until about 1995, 1996, but it was the good years?
When you have people like Madiba, Walter Sisulu … Tambo had died just before democracy really began. But you had a whole lot of people. Chris Hani, also, just killed. Murdered. That was the influence of where the movement was going, defined by people like that and that generation. And some of the people in the UDF who managed to assert themselves into how things were going. It was an incredible period to be a cartoonist. To have a head of state who actually loved cartoons and who actually enjoyed critical voices. And I mean, he said that to me, personally. That was a hugely defining moment for me, when he actually said that to me.
Did he say it about something specific? You put it together in a book later. Do you have examples?
Well the particular thing that he said … it’s a story that I’ve told more than any other, but it is my favourite moment ever for me as a cartoonist. I was just sitting at my desk on an ordinary day and the phone rings and my wife says it’s the president’s office. And I think: “Maybe they want a drawing or something.” I’m holding the phone in one hand, waiting and I’m busy drawing, I’ve got a pen in my mouth. I wait for a while and this voice says: “Hold on for president Mandela.” And I thought ag please, that’s one of my friends …
Yeah. And then there was: “Hello, is that Zapiro?” And I said: “Yes…” And it said: “This is president Mandela.” I said: “It sounds like you, so it must be you?” Which I know is pretty embarrassing. And then he said: “I’m very upset with you.” So I thought wow. It flashed through my head that maybe he is now upset about some of the cartoons that I have been doing. And he was just having a joke with me, it was about … he’d seen that I was not going to be appearing in The Argus anymore, The Cape Argus. Because there was a deal with the Sunday Times coming through. And he always loved seeing the cartoons when he was in parliament. It was pre-Internet, of course, so … well … the internet was just in its infancy. So he wanted to see the stuff every day when he was in parliament. He wouldn’t see the Sowetan cartoons reproduced in the Argus anymore. So that was why he phoned, but then … that the point is that I said to him: “I’m not only honoured and thrilled and all that…” I was a bit tongue-tied. But I then said: “You would have seen since I met you…” Because I met him in 1994. “You would have seen the cartoons getting more and more critical of the ANC and of government?” And he said: “Oh, but that is your job?” And that’s why it is my favourite story because he really understood that thing of criticism and he really encouraged it. And he loved cartoons; he loved seeing himself in the cartoons. I heard Zelda la Grange talking about that, that he … talking about some of my cartoons and cartoons in general. And I also had a chance to present him a couple of times with cartoons. So I had a sort of a charmed life then. All of a sudden I was able to do critical cartoons, but at the same time the people at the very top really appreciated that and also Madiba himself had this huge regard for the rule of law and for the institutions that he was busy setting up.
But he also understood that thing that Van Wyk Louw wrote about – loyal resistance.
But since then…
Ja, actually a term that I’ve been using is patriotic sceptic.
Since then – I don’t know, I don’t want to put a date on it. But you’ve become much more fiery and it now burns.
Look, during the Mbeki presidency some of that started to happen. I started to question where we were going economically; we started to see things happening in the arms deal, because Mbeki was behind that in 1999. And then even more so there was the stuff around HIV and Aids.
And Zimbabwe you can add into that particular mix. Because this was about Mbeki, what I always say about him is that he saw himself as the smartest person in the room, which he often was, but the smartest person in the room can make big mistakes and go off on weird tangents. So he thought: “I know what’s going on in Zimbabwe, you don’t. This is the reason I have to pamper Mugabe, even not say anything about Sani Abacha and Nigeria until he’s hanged the eight activists, nine activists, I mean. That sort of thing. He kept Madiba quiet on that, so that’s the kind of thing and then on HIV and Aids he became a denialist in 1999, and I began doing savage cartoons. So my real savage, hard-hitting cartoons began in that period, 1998, 1999, 2000. And by the time Jacob Zuma came along, which was actually end of 2002, it’s as early as that. 2003. The beginning of 2003, I was already doing very, very savage cartoons about Mbeki and of Zuma. And things did change for me – I suddenly became seen as not somebody who’s sparring and I saw myself as a visual columnist with an activist bent, which is different from being an activist cartoonist as I was in the 1980s. But now suddenly I was an enemy. And that I think is the same situation that you found with a lot of people. People who were in the struggle together, but then some moved into government and others moved into media or civil society, and they’re now suddenly seen as enemies. I was suddenly an enemy.
But you also set yourself up as an enemy. It was also a choice? You moved.
Well, that’s a moot point. I often feel that I kept the same kind of politics, and I kept … and I think it’s easier for people outside of government … So I do admit that it’s easier for some of us that did go into those kind of positions to stay outside and say I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing, you’re the ones who are changing. So it’s a bit of a moot point as to whether I changed. Look, I made an active decision to push hard, but I think my politics and what I was trying to do, upholding transparency and accountability and democracy is not different from what I was doing in the 1980s or the early 1990s.
If you say you made a decision, did you think of how it also impacts on the people around you? Because I’m sure your wife, your kids would have been affected?
Well, the clearest example of that – the one that was catalytic was the Lady Justice cartoon of Jacob Zuma in 2008. I was angry beyond words at how the ANC had descended to this point where they pick the wrong guy. It was completely clear. The only way they felt they could get Thabo Mbeki out – and I agree, they needed to get him out – but if they were going to say the only we’ll do that is to get somebody who is tainted morally and tainted in terms of corruption – Jacob Zuma – and say: “He’s the only guy we think is charismatic enough and enough of a people person to take on Mbeki, and we can sort of get another camp going that will contest the Mbeki camp. If that’s the case – and you’re going to have everyone around him and he himself saying there’ll be anarchy if these charges against me stick. And so Gwede Mantashe said it, and Zwelenzima Vavi who I have a lot of respect for, obviously Julius Malema emerged as somebody who was saying those things. Blade Nzimande and Zuma himself, which is why I included all of them in that cartoon. And I made a very conscious decision there that I’m going to go for broke.
Did you discuss it with anyone? With your wife?
I did, actually. But the weird thing was when I came up with that idea for that cartoon, I was … you see, I often write things down. I do a very left brain way of operating with cartoons where I’d write things down and I’d hope the right brain would kick in, that sort of lateral way of thinking. So I wrote down: “What the hell is Zuma doing? Zuma is raping justice.” And then the right brain just exploded, because I suddenly realised justice is a woman. Metaphorically it’s Lady Justice. And I suddenly drew – I started the first little rough of that image, and I promise you – I’m not making this up. I went: “Ah!”
So did everyone who saw it.
Everyone who saw the rough of that cartoon and everyone who saw the actual cartoon – again my friend Andy Mason who I mentioned earlier, he wrote an article called “A sharp intake of breath”, which was about the reaction to that cartoon. Anyway, I sent the rough to my editor, Mondli Makhanya at the Sunday Times, and I sent it to him about a day earlier and he was really surprised, because I’m notorious for being late. And I sent this to him and I said … And he said: “Listen, I’m at a restaurant.” I said Mondli, you have to see this, I need to know whether I’m going to do it. I’ve got to think it through.” So he tells the story about the waiter – I had to fax the rough to the restaurant – And he tells the story about this waiter, coming across with this fax, and suddenly the waiter … He said the guy was … Mondli said a black waiter suddenly went white. The waiter was looking at this thing and he said suddenly his jaw just dropped. He handed it to Mondli and he also reacted – everybody reacted.
And what was Mondli’s reaction as editor?
He phoned me and he said – he always says: “Yo, yo, yo, eish Comrade, that’s tough, but it’s what needs to be said.” Then I got cold feet. I got cold feet – not because of Zuma or the politicians or the repercussions, but I suddenly thought how would women see that cartoon. A gang rape situation, or potential gang rape and so I then showed my wife, and she was also absolutely shocked, Karina. But she understood what I was trying to do, but we decided that the best thing would be to send it round to some female journalist colleagues …
And all this had to happen within 24 hours?
Ja, and we sent it to a couple of them and they all told me that it knocked the breath out of them and then they looked at it for a minute, and they said: “But it’s right.” And when the cartoon was published – apart from all the heavy reaction – one of the best things was that on the talk shows where I was getting savaged by people politically and supported as well, but there were women who phoned up and said: “I’m a rape survivor.” Some said: “I’m a gang rape survivor. And initially I was utterly shocked and I saw that was my experience.” So there was this other level of what happens in this country, the patriarchy, and as it happened, Zuma is a huge icon of that kind of patriarchy. And also, as it happens, had been through a rape case himself and he of course was acquitted, and the cartoon is metaphorical, so it’s not about his rape case. It’s about a metaphorical figure of justice. But it was a massive moment for me, of course.
Have you ever regretted having done something? I can see that this one you thought through, you tested out, you were absolutely sure. Have there been moments where it wasn’t as thought through and you thought: “Maybe I shouldn’t have”?
Even though cartoonists shoot from the hip and have to get drawings in a few hours, or maybe a day, I do think a lot about this stuff and if it’s very controversial I speak to my editors – I really value that kind of dialogue. So I don’t think there are many instances where that’s happened, but I can think of a couple. Maybe two, because one is one where I personally can’t look at a cartoon that I did, which was also dealing with rape, but it was a … Charlize Theron did a series of rape, anti-rape ads, which I think were great, and then there was this Advertising Standards Authority, because they got a couple of complaints – like two or three complaints – they pulled the ads. So I did a really harsh cartoon about them, and I shot from the hip too quickly and I didn’t think it through and it was too graphic. It was like women of South Africa being raped again by that … by the Advertising Standards Authority. It’s a very eina kind of cartoon to look at and I do regret doing that and I did a better one of the issue afterwards, a much more interesting one. But the other time was also – of all the cartoons that I’ve done about Zuma, I don’t regret any one of them, except one. I’d been to a party and we were asked to do a limerick, and I did a really nice limerick – it was about public figures and I did one about Brett Murray and The Spear and Zuma, and it was a very funny limerick and people loved it and I did a little drawing that went with it and it was such a hit at the party and I thought: “Well, I’ll find a way to get that into the newspaper.” But the context shifted, and I didn’t quite get that. And I probably ended up being the only one who thought it was funny in the newspaper. So I then end up – I’m sitting in a hotel room in Venice, and my editor phones me up from Cape Town, from Jo’burg and he says: “Listen, everybody’s on your case. Even people who normally support your stuff. Everybody thinks … so all the commentators and the lefties and they all said what’s happened to Zapiro?” So that was very difficult, I had to write a statement and luckily that hasn’t happened very often. But that’s the only time. But ja, that wasn’t my finest moment.
Are there things that you still aspire to? Do you want to write a graphic novel? Do you want to do something …
As it happens, yes. Seeing as you put it theoretically like that. I would like to – I don’t feel while I’m doing editorial cartoons and while I take so much time to do them I go round and do lots of talks and I just don’t have the time, but I’m doing some other interesting projects as well. And there are things I can do concurrently with my editorial cartooning. We’re making figurines, we’ll soon be releasing figurines, we’re soon going to be releasing little figurines of little political figures and that’s incredibly exciting. I’m working with a fantastic sculptor, but autobiographical stories of things, of experiences, of my most interesting stories. I’d really like to do them in comic form, so not necessarily graphic novels, but graphic journalism or graphic autobiography. I’d love to do that.
Okay, we’ll look forward to that. You’ve been married to the same woman – as I have to the same man – for more than half our lives. What makes it work?
We are very different, which I think is that complimentary thing. As kind of manic and disorganised in some ways as I am, she is structured and balanced and Karina has got tremendous focus, and she can also – she thinks ahead. I think in the moment, or just ahead, because that’s all I can accommodate. And she has foresight and she kind of plans where things could go. It was her idea to apply for the Fulbright … A lot of the things that we’ve done have been because she has that sense of where we could go. And she has that balance. I wish I had balance, but I don’t. I’m very all over the place.
What do you enjoy most about her?
Her mind, that she and I are – despite that difference – we have this incredible bond and conversation and we can talk and think things through and she’s just … ja. We’ve now been together since 1984, so it is a long time and it just feels … I mean, it sounds clichéd but she really is a rock for me. She holds everything together. And she’s also an exciting personality.
And the kids? You have two?
Ja, we have a 19-year-old son, Tevya, who has just been on a really wonderful gap year – he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do and precisely figured that out during his gap year. He was in the United States and Nicaragua and then went across to some places in Europe, now he’s studying in humanities at UCT, so he’s been there during the whole ruckus around the whole Rhodes thing – very, very fascinating time to be there. Our daughter, Nina, is at Westerford, she’s in grade 9, so she’s … They’re both very interested in drawing. Tevya did very well in art and in drama, but he’s not studying those. Nina, she knows what she will do.
How did they change you? Children change you.
Well I think there was an attempt on my part to try and get more balance and it succeeded to a point where we do wonderful things together. We have particular areas that we bond over. And I think that’s been a wonderful thing for me. I used to make sure that I read to them every night and we dissolve in fits of laughter and we had a strong bond. I’ve had with both of them. And then going on trips with them has been something we’ve really tried to do. Experience bits of the world together. And it’s different from when you’re travelling as an adult by yourself or just with a partner to see things a little bit through their eyes and try and help them get those experiences, that’s been fantastic too.
And home, Jonathan? You’ve always lived in Cape Town – why did you never consider moving to Gauteng? Your work was there for a very long time? What makes Cape Town so special?
Well, New York is the only place that has enough of a draw card to get me. I can imagine living in New York, and there are aspects of Johannesburg I really love, which are better than Cape Town.
The weather, for one?
Maybe. That’s not what I’m thinking of so much. Cape Town … I love. My roots are here. My family is here, my friends are here, mostly. Mostly. So there’s historic roots for me. And the place itself – getting out over weekends and walking or cycling, hiking, all of that stuff. Going to the beach. Cape Town is peerless in that way – it’s the most beautiful place. So the historic stuff and what you can see and do is great. The part of Cape Town that really eats into me is how untransformed it is. And that really is a problem – I really feel … When I go to Johannesburg, I love that about Jo’burg – going to places and it really feels like it’s a New South African transformed city. And despite what the DA government here will say, that it’s all a big lie by the ANC – it’s not true. Cape Town is quite backward.
Still consists of different cities?
It’s very clicky, there’s lots of racism – there’s racism everywhere – but Cape Town does have that problem, that it’s a kind of an enclave of in some ways of Old South Africa. Very divided.
And the physical space? What is your home like? How long have you lived there?
One of the nice things about our home – we were lucky enough to move to a place where we do have those vistas out of the mountains – we’re right in the City Bowl, in Oranjezicht – so there’s actually one window up in our attic where we made … I love table tennis, we don’t play enough but we’ve got a spot there where we can play ping pong and there’s a window there if you look carefully in all the directions you can see all the … you can see Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak, Lion’s Head, Signal Hill. So we have great views and great openness which I love about the house.
And how long have you lived there?
As old as our … Our daughter is 15 now, we lived there 15 years.
What made you choose that house? Is it the view? Is it the open spaces inside?
The views and the openness were huge, but it also has … it’s got comfortable spaces. I feel what makes a house a house is places where you want to be. If whether you want to be private or you want to be sitting out looking at the view, so it has got those things and one other thing it’s got, which we were looking for, is a separate place for me, because … I’m not making light of this – the sort of mayhem of the cartoonist’s studio … A cartoonist’s head is a strange place. The cartoonist’s studio is just an extension of that. So there’s deadlines, there’s lots of swearing and lots of mayhem and it’s actually not good for that to be in the house. So I’m connected – I just go up and down the stairs, but I can be completely separate and all my stuff is there, my libraries. I’ve got a huge library – so that was something. We looked for a place where I could have a totally separate place which has still got nice views and everything. So that’s one of the things I also value.
Well, I hope you have a chance to create your book at some point. And you will let us know?
Thank you very much.
Great. Thanks Ruda.
‘Till next time – goodbye.
* This interview first appeared on the Change Exchange an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes.
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