Even satirists and comedians sometimes stop joking when things are really critical. Like the financial disaster president Jacob Zuma brought on South Africa last week by sacking respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene who had opposed his monetary profligacy, replacing him with a compliant novice and plunging the country into a panic about impending bankruptcy and junk status. The country’s finest satirist, Pieter-Dirk Uys, known for his daring lampooning during apartheid of President PW Botha and other pillars of the white regime, was stony-faced when interviewed about the country’s decline under the ANC.
The rand plummeted to its lowest levels ever. Investors panicked and sent their money elsewhere, thinking the country was heading over a fiscal cliff. Billions were lost on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in a day, and billions more flew out of South Africa.
Uys has a supreme ability to find humour in uncanny situations. During the interview, however, he said icily with hardly a trace of humour: “A lot of the suspicion is that [if] you cross the line, you get elbowed aside [by Zuma]… But they [the government] work for us, we don’t work for them! They are not the Royal Family; they all look a little bit like Prince Charles, but they are not the Royal Family. That’s the legacy of apartheid among most South Africans – we still treat politicians like gods. They are not.”
One positive thing the resulting cacophony of public protest against Zuma showed, is that South Africa is not (yet) a dictatorship. But his disregard for the citizens’ well-being, deploying buddies in key positions with fat salaries and turning a blind eye to massive corruption, points ominously in that direction. A collective cheer erupted from South Africans when he did an about-turn on Sunday after receiving petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatories, letters of protest from the most respected intellectuals, and a virtual political revolt within his own party. Embarrassed, he hastily installed a more qualified man – a previous finance minister, Pravin Gordhan.
Another satirist who took on Zuma was cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro – aka Zapiro – who also has solid anti-apartheid credentials. His cartoon in the Mail and Guardian last week displayed serious concern as much as humour. Zapiro has long seen Zuma, who was once a hero of the liberation struggle, as a tragi-comical figure, and created an iconic image of the president with a shower-head mounted on his skull. This derived from the occasion when Zuma – before becoming president – said in court during a trial for rape that after having sex with an HIV-positive woman, he had showered, thinking this would reduce his risk of being infected.
In Zapiro’s cartoon last week, Zuma is a wrecking ball swinging on a chain – with his close friend, SAA head Dudu Myeni perched on it – sweeping Nene aside and demolishing the SA economy. The shower head was there, of course, lodged between Myeni’s thighs like a phallus – there are rumours the two are having an affair. The message, though, was deadly serious: Zuma is wrecking the country.
Uys and Zapiro are both Jewish, but have little to do with the mainstream Jewish community. For some SA Jews, Zapiro is persona non grata because of his stinging portrayals of Jewish and Israel-related issues. A 2010 cartoon, for example, evoked outrage among rightwing Jews when it showed former SA Judge Richard Goldstone staring forlornly through a Johannesburg synagogue window from the outside, as his grandson had his barmitzvah inside, the ceremony being presided over by the chief rabbi and officials of the SA Zionist federation and the shul; the phrase “Israel right or wrong” was pasted on the shul’s wall. This was after Goldstone’s UN-sponsored report had criticised Israel for possible human rights violations during the 2009 Gaza war. The judge had been threatened with pickets if he dared attend the barmitzvah.
However, Zapiro will be supported by most Jewish South Africans for his take on Zuma and the ANC government’s incompetence. A controversial Zapiro cartoon in 2008 showed Zuma loosening his trousers while his powerful political friends hold ‘Lady Justice’ down, saying: “Go for it, boss.” It was at a time when Zuma and his allies were threatening the judiciary in order to get corruption charges against him dropped, so he could become president. After the cartoon’s appearance, Zuma said he would sue Zapiro for R4m for defamation, but later withdrew.
Zuma has been exposed as a corrupt blunderer, out of his depth, who openly giggled in parliament when questioned about why state money was spent upgrading his private homestead, Nkandla. His tenure as president has been compared by black and white commentators to the destructiveness of the apartheid era – the ultimate slur. Many feel the country is teetering on the edge of becoming a banana republic.
But South Africa recovered from apartheid, and will recover from the Zuma wrecking ball. The likes of Zapiro and Uys, and similar determined voices who helped defeat apartheid, will be with us long after the giggling president is history.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was Editor of the SA Jewish Report for 16 years, from 1999-2014)