Sitting in Zapiro's back Garden, with a bottle of beer. (A wee word about political cartooning and South Africa)
School Photo - with Pieter-Dirk Uys (SA's most famous comedian, after the show). L-R: Paul from the British Council, Alix Hughes, Matt Buck, Me, Tanya Tier, Jonathan Zapiro, P-D Uys, Michelle - boyfriend of:, John Curtis, Steve Bell and Matt H.
Jacob Zuma sues cartoonist Zapiro for £700000
I sat in the back garden of Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) about four/five year ago with a bottle of beer watching the colours on table top mountain change in the sun set. This impressive lightshow was an accompaniment to a gathering that left my face hurting from laughing so much.It also left a feeling of being punched in the ribs that lasted for days.
The conversation was fast, humorous and very political.
I was part of an exchange project for political cartoonist set up by the British council. My self and four other young(ish) cartoonists, plus the illustrious Steve Bell from the Guardian were sent to make our impressions of the political scene in South Africa at the time.
As the light hit the mountain with purple, the conversation between the two cartoonists Steve Bell and Jonathan Zapiro turned to the darker side of being a political cartoonist. A collective hush fell among us wanabe's. This was pre 'the Mohammad cartoons' days.
Naively I assumed that if some one didn't like your cartoon the worst thing that could happen was they didn’t laugh... right?...Wrong.
Up until then it had never really crossed my mind about the possibility that there was actual danger involved in cartooning, growing up in Northern Ireland I was experienced at getting peoples backs up for minatory views such as pacifism and dressing like a Goth. I remember even being threatened from a passing car for consorting with protestants, I was not entirely inexperienced with the implications of sticking your tongue out at people who may have had guns on there laps. That was however the bravado of being a teenager.
I found my self nervously picking at the label of my beer bottle as Jonathan recounted the story of his incarceration for his pro ANC cartoons during the Apartheid era. The cartoon in question was a jolly looking A3 in a 'Where’s Wally” style of various figures in a street scene. It could of sat comfortable in a Beno comic in its cute style and inoffensiveness, (That’s if you weren’t a insane fascist racist of course)
If I remember correctly it was the small detail of the simple inclusion of the word ANC on the side of a bus in the centre of the cartoon that was the catalyst in having his life turned upside down, and being thrown in a cell.
He told us of watching for kites flown on a hill near the prison by his mates through the bars of his window; they would do this to keep his Spirits up. When he got out, he experienced surveillance and intimidation.
I remember thinking, would I be prepared to stand up and be counted for something I had drawn to the extent that this man did.?
Jonathan’s youngest kid was playing on the grass of the back yard. She was just a bit younger then my own daughter and a pang of longing to see my own child back in the UK hit me.
As a mother, part of my job was to keep out of trouble. Was the sexist old cartoonist we saw earlier that day right about women not being right to political cartoon? Was it a ‘woman on the front line’ argument rather then the ability to find the killer instinct required for this kind satire, that the old cynical cartoonist had alluded to.
Would I be prepared to face the wrath of a country’s government for the artistic equivalent of giving the finger? Those small lines on paper that can provoke laughter, and in turn shake the ground beneath your feet.
The beer bottle was almost striped clean by now and Tabletop Mountain was bathed in theatrical style under lighting. I rember watching the unfamiliar star constellations gradually coming into view, the starry cross I had never seen before.
We talked about the things that had shocked us on are tour, the history, the personal story’s of the people we meet, and the physical scars on the very landscape that could still be seen.
But it was with a positive shock that we had all come to realise that freedom of speech in South Africa was better then in the UK at that time.
What was hard fought for was sacred now or so it seemed...at the time.
This government was now answerable to a constitution that was fresh and elegant. The most beautiful of creations of political struggle to break, for a long time.
One of are BC guides was a pleasant but christen lady who didn’t approve of the rights of gay adoption, we were treated to her muttering darkly in presents of one of the people who wrote the constitution that it had all gone a bit 'too far' when it came to the 'Gays’
But that was her right to say it, that’s what it was all about.
Rational Counter argumen with a resulting democratic consensus was what the people of South Africa had enshrined in their squeaky new government, right?
As transparent a notion as the glass walls of their high court of human rights.
My self and my other trainee female political cartoonist in the group were, on return to the UK to find that the acceptance of a female political cartoonist was a something that the UK was not ready for either, unlike this hopeful new country.
I found my self-national published while in South Africa and quaked in fear and wonder at giving the finger to the president personally. As I drew the cartoon, a small sense of personal danger was overtaken by such a fierce and righteous anger at the murderous heath policy of Thabo Mibeki.
As I peered at it on the news stands in Cape Town I remember feeling elated tinged with, ‘Oh s**t what have I done..’
And now I hear there having a go at Jonathan again. I knew the wheel would turn perhaps but not as soon as this.
Jacob Zumas trial was part of the unpleasant rot that had set in during Mbeki's administration.
The corruption and jobs for the boys would put Jackie Smiths husbands Jazz flicks well in perspective.
Zumas rape trial had a bit of the OJ about it. The concept of showering after sex to stop HIV transmission professed by Zuma during the trial made for a quick intake of breath in its warped clarity. The guy was an asshole, and as dumb as the man who didn’t believe it existence in the first place, the idiot Thabo Mibeki, he now has replaced.
I feel if they continue to hound Jonathan (Zapiro) for his recent cartoons of Zuma they have already killed the dream they all worked, died and suffered for. I hope this is not true; I still have high hopes for the country. I met enough decent people over at the time to convince me that they could out weigh the idiots.
During our stay everyone in the ‘wanabie’ cartoonist group, at one time or another was overcome by an overwhelming urge to sing the song from ‘Spitting image’ called ‘Iv never met a nice south African’. We had devised a plan of ankle kicking/beating each over the head with sketch books if any one felt the Tourettes like urge to start singing it during are stay in front of any of are hosts.
Jonathan (Zapiro) and his lovely misses came and took us all for a days sight seeing before we flew back, the subject of ‘Spitting image’ came up. During apartited, bootleg copies were circulated and laughing at puppets became a very dangerous pass time.
Just as were got back to our hotel, him and his missus broke in to the most joyful spontaneous rendition of ‘Iv never met a nice South African,’
‘No he's never met a nice South African
And that's not bloody surprising man
'Cause we're a bunch of talentless murderers
Who smell like baboons, sniff sniff’
We sat shocked in the back for a moment and then broke into hysterical laughter, that came in waves of relief.
Freedom of speech is not just something you do, its something you have to take as well.
Humour and democracy require self-deprecation.
That’s part of the deal.