Drawing on Madiba’s influence

A life-size cartoon Mandela reads his
birthday cards in the foyer of the
Foundation’s auditorium.
(Image: Janine Erasmus)

A selection of the cartoons on exhibition.
(Image: Nelson Mandela Foundation)

Zapiro at work.
(Image: Nelson Mandela Foundation)

Jonathan Shapiro – Zapiro.
(Image: UKZN Centre for Creative Arts)

Janine Erasmus

You either love him or you hate him, but you cannot ignore political cartoonist Zapiro. The award-winning artist’s latest exhibition, a tribute to former president Nelson Mandela, is currently running at the offices of the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.

The last of six exhibitions that pay homage to the revered elder statesman who turned a remarkable 90 in July 2008, Zapiro’s Mandela tribute runs until March 2009. Speaking at the opening, the artist said, after reading Mandela’s 90th birthday cartoon to him, “I would like to say a huge thank you to the Nelson Mandela Foundation for presenting me with the honour of being part of the 90th year celebrations.”

Mandela has been portrayed in Zapiro cartoons in a multitude of incarnations. He has appeared as David slaying the Goliath of apartheid, as Moses leading the people back to the promised land, as the wind blowing South Africa’s double rugby world champions the Springboks to victory, as a paper doll with interchangeable clothes of the national rugby, cricket and football teams, as a cowboy riding with his lady into the unset (referring to Mandela’s much-publicised romance and marriage to Graça Machel), and as the conscience of the nation.

A right to freedom of expression

Zapiro fiercely defends his right to free expression. Not only cartoonists, he says, but also society in general must engage with those in authority in a critical fashion. This attitude has earned him both praise and scorn, not to mention death threats.

However, not even Nelson Mandela has been spared Zapiro’s pen. Where it has appeared, though, the cartoonist’s criticism has always been tempered with great respect and Mandela himself, according to archivist Verne Harris of the Foundation’s Centre of Memory, has encouraged it.

Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee, herself a formidable journalist of integrity, described Zapiro as “a cutting and stern critic of the South African political landscape”, while Moegsien Williams, editor of The Star, called Zapiro unstoppable, “even by a tsunami”.

Haffajee has likened South Africa’s political cartoonists to imbongi, or praise singers, who actually do not always praise but do have the responsibility of speaking the truth, good or bad, to those in power without fearing for their lives. “The greater the freedom of the cartoonist, the higher the democratic quotient of a society,” said Haffajee.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has commended Zapiro for his “passionate desire to will this country and its extraordinary people into realising their potential.” Tutu also received his own cartoon for his 75th birthday in 2006 and said, “I am always intrigued because if you will notice, Zapiro always draws my nose peeping into my mouth.” The Arch added that he was deeply touched and lacked words to express his appreciation.

Telling the truth as he sees it

Widely admired and highly controversial, Zapiro aka Jonathan Shapiro is a Cape Town native who initially studied architecture at Cape Town University but was not happy with this choice. He changed to studying graphic design at the Michaelis School of Art, which meant that he forfeited his South African army draft deferment and had no choice but to enlist. In the army, military authorities didn’t look kindly on Shapiro’s vehement anti-apartheid stance and refusal to carry arms, and the young activist was monitored and even once arrested under the Illegal Gatherings Act.

These political activities formed the germ of his future career as a cartoonist. After his discharge from the army he worked for a number of newspapers and organisations before taking up a Fulbright Scholarship in 1988 to study media arts at New York’s School of Visual Arts.

Shapiro returned to South Africa in 1991, three years before the dawn of democracy, and immediately became involved with organisations such as Story Circle, producing educational comics for social causes, before embarking on his fulltime career as a political cartoonist.

Since then he has worked for leading South African newspapers including the Sowetan and the Cape Argus. His work is currently featured in the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Cape Times, The Star, The Mercury, and the Pretoria News.

There are no sacred cows for Shapiro, and his cartoons have targeted leading figures ranging from Jacob Zuma, Thabo Mbeki, George W. Bush and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to Bill Clinton and Mandela. They have brought him death threats and intense criticism but also the adulation of the local and international media, a huge fan base comprising many diverse ethnicities, and a host of awards and exhibitions.

Shapiro has also been guest speaker at cartoon events around the world and for four years was a speaker at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. His work has been featured in Newsweek, The Economist, Le Monde, The Observer, The Scotsman, and the International Journal of Comic Art, among many others. He has published 12 books of comics.

In 2001 Shapiro became the first cartoonist to win a category prize in CNN’s African Journalist of the Year Awards. Besides his many other accolades, in 2005 he received the prestigious principal award, worth €100,000, from the Netherlands-based Prince Claus Fund for culture and development. The theme that year was Humour and Satire, and the award was bestowed on Shapiro for his “ability to make people laugh – even when it is at their own expense”.

In 2008 two Africans were named as winners of Prince Claus Awards – they are sculptor extraordinaire Ousmane Sow from Senegal, and Nigerian photographer James Iroha Uchechukwu. The theme was The Human Body and the principal award went to Indian writer Indira Goswami.

At home Shapiro has won numerous awards, including the first Mondi Shanduka South African Journalist of the Year Award and the first Vodacom Cartoonist of the Year Award, both in 2006. In 2007 he won another international award for cartoonists sponsored partly by German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and adjudicated by, among others, Kenyan Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai. In the same year he received the annual Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from the US Cartoonist Rights Network.

Shapiro works with pen and Indian ink, drawing his cartoons free hand. He is married to photographer Karina Turok.

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