By BRUCE DENNILL
It’s been a bumper year for political cartoonists in South Africa, including everything from state capture to junk status via Robert Mugabe’s resignation. That’s a lot to keep up with. What sort of regime is required to remain an expert across all these topics?
“I don’t think the word ‘expert’ is always applicable next to my name,” grins Jonathan Shapiro, better known as the cartoonist Zapiro. “I’m passionate about the issues, and I draw from that space. I’m a visual columnist, not a journalist, so I interpret events in a personal way. I’m always working with things that the public knows about and may not know about, and I occasionally start debates. It’s not a word I’m completely comfortable with, but I try to disrupt a little; to upset the apple cart.”
There’s a precedent for this sort of thing.
“If you looked at Mad magazine from the Fifties onwards, you could – if you wanted to – learn a new way of looking at the world; to subvert and parody information,” recalls Shapiro. “I try to keep that sort of perspective wherever I can.”
A cartoonist’s product is his punchline, but not all of his readers will necessarily be as knowledgeable on his themes. Is there a formula for ensuring there’s enough context communicated to help people understand what is going on?
“There are different kinds of punchlines,” muses Shapiro. “A punchline could be visual – no words, or just one or two. On the other hand, my record for the most words is around 220! On average, I look at between five and 15 words, in two speech balloons. I start with a thumbnail stage, where I figure out the wordiness. It’s all conceptual up front, but the final product must look like it was supposed to look like that.
“For me, it really is programmatic. I write down what I’m interested in, and then I write down my attitudes to whatever that is. Then I have to figure out how to communicate the idea. Maybe it’ll be a sitcom-type thing with people with normal bodies and so on. Or it could be conceptual, with someone’s body being the size of the planet or something.
“I look at tone, too. Am I trying to be funny? Do I want to convey outrage? Do I want to show the pathos in a situation? All of that will define whether it will be a single frame or a strip. And only then do I start drawing. I’m lucky. I don’t really get blank paper syndrome. I usually end up with a hundred bits and pieces I’ve been trying to get to work, and I often go back to those and hope that some sort of right brain chemical reaction will kick in.”
As part of this process, ther will be soaking up of much of the anger, bitterness and angst that comes with researching current affairs. Sometimes Zapiro’s work is a buffer between his readers and the pointier bits of the topics under examination, while at other times his cartoons are a distillation of all those multifaceted feelings.
“I suppose it partly depends on my attitude day to day,” says Shapiro. “As I said, I’m not a reporter, so I’m often adding details that might not be in the public domain.There are conventions for explaining that sort of thing, like including a little newspaper poster in the cartoon, but there will also be a sign of how I feel about the subject.
“The questions my editors and I ask each other are: ‘Does it work?’ and ‘Can it be justified?’ Within that framework, we can look at other aspects of intent, like trying to make people laugh at something outrageous by showing that the person involved is a buffoon.”
Political cartoons are an obvious form of activism, as are Shapiro’s spoken words in interviews or similar contexts. What sort of response is hoped for from readers, though? A giggle at a clever illustration, followed by apathy – that’s not enough, is it?
“In one sense, I can’t complain,” says Shapiro. “From the time whe I was an on-the-ground activist using cartoons as overt propaganda through my time as a newspaper cartoonist, I’ve been lucky enough to get noticed and to be part of public debate.
“During the publicity tour for this latest book, I’ve met ten or 15 school-age youngsters who have said to me. ‘I learned about big issues from your cartoons’; or ‘Our teacher uses your work to teach us.’ There are also people from outside South Africa who comment, people who put the cartoons on posters at protests and, recently, a foundation that I’m happy to be associated with that put a cartoon on their T-shirts.
“I was very involved with the Treatment Action Campaign – my cartoons were used in a book about Aids. And I received a great honour from Cartoonist Rights Network International, an organisation that looks at cartoonists under threat in both democracies and dictatorships around the world. They said to me in 2007 that they had not come across another democracy in the world where our work had had a greater impact.”
Compliments don’t necessarily mean much, Shapiro concedes.
“Being influential doesn’t mean the cartoons actually change anything,” he shrugs.
“I do, however, admire people who will set out to be very un-PC. We need to be careful when we question the nature of cartoons we don’t agree with or don’t understand – such as those associated with Charlie Hebdo. Do that and you create a seed that can grow into a reason to attack people from a fundamentalist point of view.
“A lack of tolerance and violence comes from opposition to free speech, whether you agree with what is being said or not. A person who is willing to engage with any theme is not intolerant.”
Is Shapiro’s endurance as a commentator down to an unflagging passion or is it more complicated than that? Put another way, what is a greater motivation –deadlines or intent?
“The overall passion for what I do never flags,” states Shapiro.
“I’m lucky to have found a niche where people are listening. There are moments when it gets scary, though – when I have lots of commitments and no time to process or create. That sometimes happens on book tours. I love to engage with people and I don’t want to disconnect with them, but I have to manage my time. I could do with less panic sometimes…
“Deadlines are important, too: they help you to come to a realisation of an idea.”
There was an awful lot of news to interpret in 2017. What will likely prove to be the most important for the average South African?
“Oh, that’s easy – state capture and the Gupta leaks, considered together,” says Shapiro.
“There was corruption here during apartheid – it’s always been here. But state capture is different: there is the involvement of people other than elected officials having a say in who fills leadership positions. It’s not unique in the world, but it’s not good…
“People like the Daily Maverick and amaBhungane are doing incredibly important work in uncovering these stories. I’m so glad to be working with them.”
Newspapers as a medium of communicating the work of political cartoonists are having ever diminishing influence. What is needed to adapt to this situation and what is the future ideal?
“The death of newspapers has long been predicted – and it hasn’t happened,” notes Shapiro. “The slide has intensified in the last year and a half, though. The credibility of some news media has dropped, and that’s not even taking into account platforms like ANN7 and the New Age that have been designed to be fake news platforms.
“That said, the media in South Africa is still strong, with many good platforms in print and online. Online is where the fight is now, with set-ups like the Daily Maverick threatening the old models with new relationships. For instance, there was the situation recently where the Daily Maverick shared – altruistically, as they would never have been able to process everything themselves – some of the leaked Gupta emails with News24. That would never have happened in the old days.”
Zapiro’s latest collection, Hasta La Gupta, Baby! (published by Jacana) is available now.