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Illustrating South Africa's injustice

Political cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro talks about being a thorn in the side of his country's ruling elite.

Last updated: 08 Dec 2013 11:05
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Jonathan Shapiro is South Africa's best-known political cartoonist [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]

At the age of eight, Jonathan Shapiro discovered his calling.

Shapiro says he grew up with the work of British cartoonist Giles, whose calendars would arrive at his house, as well as popular comic strips like Peanuts and Tintin that appeared in the daily newspapers. Inspired, he began drawing. And now, 45 years later, he is South Africa's best-known political cartoonist.

But Shapiro's cartoons, like his life, were never void of politics and an understanding of social justice. His mother, a Jew who escaped to South Africa from Nazi Germany, made sure to teach him and his sisters about injustice - not only that during World War II, but also about the inequality in their own society during apartheid.

Shapiro's mother "made the connection between the concept of 'never again' being never should we be oppressed again [as Jews after the Holocaust], and never should anybody else be oppressed again," he says. "I don't think everyone makes that connection. She was very strong in that [way]."

Growing up in Cape Town, on the south-west coast of South Africa, Shapiro said he learned from his mother that things were "unjust and unfair" around him. But in the years that followed he did not do much about it. He finished school and went to university - never really becoming an activist. "But what pushed me over the edge was conscription," he says.

A pole, not a gun

During apartheid, military service was mandatory for white males. Shapiro said he was not "brave enough" to refuse completely and face a jail sentence, so instead he refused to carry a weapon. He describes the decision as drawing ridicule from commanding officers and fellow soldiers alike, especially when he was ordered to carry a lead pole instead of a gun.

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The pole was meant to be humiliating, and it was. Other cadets were encouraged to make fun of Shapiro, and at first he was subjected to physical attacks for his intransigence. He describes how, to the great amusement of others, he was made to march and conduct training with the pole while the others all carried guns.

"And so in a way I carved a little niche out for myself as a cartoon, not just a cartoonist," Shapiro says.  "I do think that the quirky way of seeing the world and also being prepared to open yourself up to potential ridicule and take risks in certain ways … is part of the psyche that a cartoonist has. I was deliberately trying to set myself up as being in opposition to authoritarianism, and sometimes that does involve making a bit of a fool of yourself."

Soon after, he was transferred to Cape Town, a main hub for anti-apartheid activism, and there Shapiro began to get more involved. His return home coincided with the founding of a new group, the United Democratic Front (UDF), which sought to serve as a multi-racial umbrella organisation for the hundreds of groups fighting apartheid.

Shapiro completed his military service as an activist, often running from the police while painting anti-apartheid slogans on walls at night and then returning to his military post the next morning. He finished his stint in the army and embarked on his first project - a calendar of revolutionary illustrations, of which more than 1,000 copies were printed and distributed. After that, with his sister and mother already in detention for their participation in the UDF, Shapiro says he found himself being wanted by the security forces.

"It went totally orange," he says, describing his first attempt at dyeing his hair to conceal his identity. "It looked crazy and then we had to re-dye it and it went blond. I grew a goatee and then put on granny glasses. I was told I looked like a German intellectual," he jokes.

Over the following years, as apartheid came to end, Shapiro became more active and worked with the UDF and other groups. He says he began to see himself as part of a bigger national project as the country started its transition towards democracy.

Like many in South Africa, Shapiro saw Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 27 years before his release in 1990, as the main figure who could lead the country into this new phase. "Mandela was someone I could admire and identify with. For me he embodied the struggle, suffering, the democracy and the new South Africa. So he was that fantastic transitional figure … and he was also a phenomenally able person at reconciling with people who the rest of us wouldn't want to touch with a large pole. That was part of the genius of [his] character."

Criticism of Mandela

For a political cartoonist, whose work is by nature critical of politicians and the status quo, Shapiro says that while he and so many others were excited by the new era for the country, he never changed the tone of his pen. "Cartoonists are not by nature praise singers. And in this country there is a very real thing called a praise singer, and you certainly don't want to be that. But there are so many issues that [pop] up all the time that you can criticise, and I very quickly found that although I was able to support Mandela, I found ways to start criticising him as well."

Shapiro says his drawings that are critical of Mandela began in 1994, soon after he was elected as president. Shapiro depicted the leader as naive at times, and too willing to meet with despotic governments around the world. He says that even though he criticised a national hero in his work, it did not draw a negative response from many people. The mood was jubilant in the nascent democracy, and Mandela often encouraged openness.

Shapiro often depicts Zuma with a shower on top of his head 

Shapiro first met Mandela in 1994 while accompanying his wife, a photographer, on a photo shoot of the new president. He said Mandela was familiar with his work published in various South African publications over the years. And in 1996, Shaprio, then known by his pen name Zapiro, published his first collection of illustrations from the first years of democracy, titling the work The Madiba Years after the president's clan name.

A year later, Shapiro recalls, he was sitting in his office when the phone rang. "It's the president's office," his wife said, handing him the receiver. He took the phone and continued working when a female voice came on and said: "Hold on for President Mandela."

Shapiro said he thought it was a joke being played by one of his friends until the unmistakable voice came across the line. "Hello, is that Zapiro?" Shapiro says, imitating Mandela.

"I said, 'Yes'."

"This is President Mandela."

"It sounds like you, so it must be you."

"I am very upset with you," Mandela continued.

"I'm sorry, what have I done?"

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"I just saw that your cartoons will no longer be appearing in the Cape Argus [newspaper]."

Shapiro explained to the president that he had begun working for the Sunday Times and the editors did not want his work being published by one of their competitors.

"I'm so thrilled you actually contacted me, but I can't believe you actually picked up the phone and phoned me yourself," Shapiro says, recounting his conversation. "On top of that, the thing that really gets me is that you would've seen in the three and a half years since I've met you that the cartoons are getting more and more critical of the ANC [African National Congress] and the government."

"Oh, but that is your job," Mandela told him.

Shapiro laughs recounting the phone call, which he said is a story he has told countless times. He explains that such interactions, in which Mandela encouraged criticism and openness, "set him apart from not only his successors, but from most world leaders. And you could see that idea of openness and fairness in his attitude toward the judiciary and the constitution, which again you have not seen from his successors and others in ANC."

When Mandela left political office in 1999, Shapiro says everything changed. Thabo Mbeki became head of the ANC and was elected as Mandela's successor. Mbeki quickly became a controversial figure for denying the growing threat of AIDS in South Africa and for his involvement in a massive deal to procure billions of dollars' worth of weapons. Shapiro said these two things made his criticism become "heavier". And that is when, he says, for the first time since apartheid ended, he really received criticism for his cartoons.

Shapiro says Mbeki sought to stifle debate in the country, and by doing so facilitated the rise of populists like Jacob Zuma, who became president in 2009.

'Shower head'

For Zuma, there has been no bigger thorn in his side than Jonathan Shapiro. The conflict began even before he took office. During his rise to power, Zuma faced trial for allegedly raping a family friend who was HIV-positive, a charge he was later acquitted of. During the trial Zuma made comments that he had protected himself from contracting HIV by "taking a shower" afterwards.

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In a country with one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world, people in the media ridiculed Zuma's statements. Shapiro was no exception, and he drew the up-and-coming leader with a shower on top of his head.

Shapiro's cartoons inspired the nickname "shower head", which is often used by Zuma's critics to describe the president. But it was a cartoon that showed Zuma ready to rape "Lady Justice" that led the ANC leader to file a lawsuit against Shapiro and the Sunday Times, where the cartoon was published. 

That lawsuit was only dropped in October 2012, just ahead of an ANC conference in December, when Zuma fought and won his battle to maintain power. Because of Zuma's acquittal, Shapiro says he is often wrongfully attacked for implying the president is a rapist by continuing to put a shower on his head. But Shapiro says this is a misunderstanding of his work.

Zuma filed a lawsuit against Shapiro, but it was dropped in 2012

"By putting the shower on his head I'm absolutely not [calling Zuma a rapist]. I am pointing to the strange things he says about women and the strange things he says generally when he's let loose without notes. There are some politicians who speak well off the cuff - and then there's Zuma. He tends to make homophobic or misogynistic comments, so the point of the shower is that it's highlighting all of that becoming more than simply the comment on HIV, but less than rape."

Shapiro has said that the lawsuit and criticisms have made the job more difficult for cartoonists like him and others working in the media. He says he has also received threats, especially when he has criticised Israel's occupation of Palestinian land. 

But he maintains that the attacks will never stop his cartoons. "That's what cartooning should be everywhere in the world," he says. "If you have a device that's a chink in somebody's armour, use it."

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Al Jazeera
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