Zapiro, Zuma and the ethics of lampooning

The South African cartoonist Zapiro (Jonathan Shapiro)  is used to being in hot water.  Like cartoonists everywhere his work is built on satirical comment and humorous commentary, and a healthy disrespect for the political elite. His cartoons are often more than just comments or visual representations of current news. They provide journalistic analysis in their own right, often steering debates in new directions. He has on occasion described himself as a ‘visual columnist‘, and his contribution to critical journalism in South Africa has been honoured by, amongst others, CNN – in 2001 he became the first journalist to win a prize in the CNN African Journalist of the Year awards, and in 2006 he was named Mondi Shanduka Journalist of the Year.  It is perhaps this journalistic seriousness underlying the lampooning that adds to the sting his work delivers.

Currently, debate is raging again about two of his recent cartoons that comment on the legal battles that the new ANC president Jacob Zuma have been facing .  The first cartoon depicted Zuma about to rape Lady Justice while being spurred on by his alliance partners. The second cartoon, inserted into this post above, played on the contradictory comments on the rule of law coming from some of his supporters. Now that Zuma has managed to escape prosecution and a major hurdle on his road to the country’s presidency has been removed, one can perhaps expect even less tolerance for criticism (and even more criticism from those, like Zapiro, who choose the calibre of their weapons according to the prominence of their targets).

The ethical issues around Zapiro’s cartoon are intricate and linked to race, gender and political power. The metaphor of rape is especially problematic given the prevalence of gender-based violence in South Africa, and because it insinuates a charge of rape that Zuma was cleared of not long ago.  I thought the M&G’s ombudsman Franz Kruger gave one of the most considered responses in the debate.  For a detailed gender  critique, see Christi van der Westhuizen’s post here.

Perhaps one of the key questions that remain, now that the charges against Zuma has been exposed in court as having been part of the bitter leadership struggle in the ANC, is: Who was really caught with their pants down?


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