WHEN South Africa’s best-known cartoonist, Zapiro (Jonathan Shapiro) was accused last week of racism for depicting a black man as a monkey in a cartoon in The Times, it showed how this troubled society has lost its compass and is eating its own best people.
The accusation’s trigger was Zapiro using the universal, comic metaphor of the organ grinder and his monkey. The cartoon commented on National Prosecuting Authority head Shaun Abrahams (the monkey), seeming to be dancing to its master, President Jacob Zuma’s tune (the human organ grinder) by resisting reinstatement of over 700 corruption charges against Zuma, which were mysteriously dropped by his predecessor at the NPA before he became President.
During his decades-long career, Zapiro – arguably the Western world’s most respected political cartoonist today – has incurred the wrath of many powerful people, which is the lot of anyone speaking truth to power. He satirised apartheid’s political leaders, and lampoons the antics of post-apartheid figures, particularly the blunders and corruption of Zuma and his lackeys.
ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa responded angrily last week that “Zapiro’s cartoons are now being used by racists in our country to glamourise their prejudice”.
Jews and black people have something in common – a hypersensitivity to how they are portrayed by others. Long histories of discrimination and dehumanisation, leading to violence and killings, have developed psychological buttons. For Jews, pogroms and the Holocaust are emblematic of this. For blacks, the sore points are colonialism, slavery and apartheid.
A caricature which enrages Jews is the “Shylock” image, portraying a Jew with hooked nose, cunning eyes and pockets stuffed with dollar bills, controlling the world with money and secret deals – an image used by Jew-haters to demonise them before killing them.
Not everyone who comments negatively about Jews or blacks is anti-Semitic or racist, however. Sometimes these subjects over-react. Some Jews tend to respond to any non-Jew’s criticism of Israel by labelling the critic an anti-Semite. The danger of genuine anti-Semitism is real and, sadly, is growing worldwide. But the term must be used carefully, or it loses its significance.
Zooming in on the local South African context: it is far too easy today to throw the word “racist” at anyone, regardless of appropriateness or the hurt caused. Nobody, black or white, Jew or non-Jew, is totally without prejudices – it is part of the human condition. But if everyone can be labelled a racist for the slightest hint of criticism, the term is drained of all meaning.
The sensitivity of the monkey image for black people is clear, particularly after the recent infamous incident where Durban estate agent and DA member Penny Sparrow caused a national social-media storm by referring to black beachgoers as “monkeys”. But where does the line lie between a sane perspective and the madness of today’s angry South African society?
Zapiro has previously portrayed all sorts of people as monkeys. One well-known cartoon shows white apartheid leaders Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster, PW Botha and FW de Klerk as neanderthals in various stages of development, with Nelson Mandela towering over them as the dignified, fully evolved human being. He has also enraged Jews with negative depictions of right-wing Israelis and SA Jewry, resulting in some calling him a self-hating Jew.
With public discourse so dominated by social media, the crudest verbiage spewed by idiots quickly reaches thousands, making racist slurs more dangerous. When words lose meaning, it leads to the kind of bizarre doublespeak portrayed in George Orwell’s iconic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a society where nothing means what it says.
The current furore surrounding Zapiro indicates rising paranoia among South Africans, exacerbated by an increasingly prescriptive, legislation-obsessed government. The underlying causes – basic insecurity when leadership is almost non-existent and the future uncertain – must be addressed to avoid the kind of outcome Orwell envisaged.
Undoubtedly, South African society is filled with racists of all colours. But they need to be confronted wisely, not like a sledgehammer to a spider.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)