Deafened by the dark laughter of our times

Zapiro and Uys

South Africa in chaos: tragic or hilarious? Satirical performer Pieter-Dirk Uys and cartoonist Zapiro confront the identities and sensitivities of South Africa and its political turmoil, provoking outrage and praise

AS anxious South Africans take sides for or against President Jacob Zuma and his clinging to power, it is often artists who show the true nature of the dilemmas. Ever since the worst days of apartheid one of the best has been Pieter-Dirk Uys, who lampooned and enraged apartheid leaders such as PW Botha. His latest show at Montecasino last week, Echo of a Noise, shines a light on the torment of having to choose who you are and what you believe in as an individual or society.

Illustrious cartoonist Zapiro – Jonathan Shapiro – in his latest work this week, shows how Zuma has ‘raped’ the country and handed it to his patron the Gupta family. The cartoon has evoked outrage as well as high praise for its use of violent sex against a black woman as a metaphor for the plight of this country. It follows a previous cartoon in 2008 about the president ‘raping’ the justice system, which resulted in serious threats by Zuma to sue him.

The racial monster is rising again – the truth is, it never left, but was hidden for a while under the spell of Mandela – exploited by Zuma’s rants against whites and ‘white monopoly capital’ to hide his government’s corruption and ineptitude. South Africans are questioning their identity and how to relate to fellow South Africans who may be different. Sadly, many know only to shout at each other rather than listen.

Uys, who developed a stage persona as an Afrikaans woman, Evita Bezuidenhout, needs no introduction here. In his current show he tells the story of his own life, on a set containing a single black plastic chair in which he sits for an hour and a half facing the audience, as a 71-year-old man, stripped of make-up and wigs, in the intimate way one talks to a friend.

He didn’t know when he was a child growing up in Pinelands near Cape Town that his mother, a gifted pianist, had come from Germany in the 1930s to escape the anti-Jewish tide before the war. She brought her piano with her. She married an Afrikaner, Hannes Uys, who believed in church, discipline and racial separation. Hannes was the church organist and a piano teacher. Pieter’s sister Tessa later became a world-renowned concert pianist, returning the piano to its origins in Berlin in subsequent years. Mozart’s spirit filled their house.

Their coloured domestic maid, Sannie, was a central character in his life, adding to the rich mix of identities he grew up with.

One day a visitor arrived for his mother, a childhood friend from Europe. He hears them speaking German as they drink tea. He asks the woman what the tattooed numbers on her wrist are – perhaps a telephone number? She smiles wryly and says yes, and perhaps he should call that number? She couldn’t begin to explain to such a young boy what had happened in Germany.

Uys recounts how his mother confided to a German friend who had helped her immigrate to South Africa, about how to make sense of the laws forbidding blacks to sit on park benches, work in certain jobs and live in certain areas, when similar laws against Jews were what she had fled Germany to escape. She suffered from depression and later committed suicide by jumping off a cliff at Chapman’s Peak.

Uys found apartheid South Africa both tragic and ironic and even made us laugh at its absurdity. Zapiro has similarly portrayed the multiple identities of the country with all their ironies and sensitivities, but very few people are laughing.

Hard choices face South Africans today about who they are, as they did when Uys was growing up. Will those who still believe in a great country eject Zuma and his evil and heal what he has damaged?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

  • For a review of Echo of a Noise click here

Getting rude and dirty with politicians should be fine – or not?

 

Mabulu with Zuma Gupta painting 2

Should public figures be fair game for sexual portrayal by artists to argue politics? Ayanda Mabulu has touched a sensitive button with his new paintings of Jacob Zuma

ATTEMPTS by SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng to censor the public broadcaster show one face of the question of how far freedom of expression should stretch. Another is revealed by contentious incidents in South Africa and Israel of sexual political paintings which have raised hackles and evoked praise.

Can political art be compared to critical journalism? Israel is a society where robust debate is inherent in its makeup – but the head of the art department of Tel Aviv’s Shenkar College, Larry Abramson, resigned this week to protest censorship of a student’s painting. It shows a naked woman bearing a representation of right-wing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s face, against a background of colourful drapery. The student said the work, intended for exhibition with final projects by graduating seniors, was meant to induce “discomfort” conveying nihilism and an “absence of a coherent position.” College president Yuli Tamir ordered that it should be excluded from the exhibition, or else the face should be blacked out.

Abramson told Haaretz that without freedom of expression “we don’t have an art school”. If, out of self-censorship, images are silenced or hidden, then “[how] can we advance critical, open and provocative debate, all the things for which art exists?”

Should it make a difference if the work portrays a man or woman? Tamir – a woman who was previously minister of culture and also of education – said censoring the painting was motivated not by Shaked’s politics but the judgment that the work was hurtful toward women generally in leadership roles in Israel. “As a woman who has [repeatedly] suffered from sexist attacks… I will not let it happen.”

Which takes us to some controversial paintings showing President Jacob Zuma in sexual poses. “The Spear”, by Brett Murray which was on exhibition in 2012 showed Zuma with genitals exposed, part of a solo show entitled “Hail to the Thief II”. The ANC threatened to sue for defamation and force Johannesburg’s Goodman gallery to remove the piece. It was later vandalised by visitors in the gallery.

This month, political paintings by artist Ayanda Mabulu were shown in an exhibition at Constitution Hill, one showing Zuma licking the naked posterior of billionaire businessman Atul Gupta, who has been accused of state capture. An ANC flag appears in the scene, which is a plane’s cockpit – a clear metaphor for capital flight from the country.

Mabulu defended his work saying he was “lashing the hands of the oppressor until they let loose.” He was opposed to “the hierarchical system where if you climb up, you can be looked at as a demigod, and we, the people on the ground, are looked at as nothing.”

In racially charged South Africa, the fact that Mabulu is black averted racism accusations. If he was white the outcome would probably have been more serious. Despite howls of protest on social media and elsewhere, the works remain untouched.

The incident reminds one of a work by cartoonist Zapiro in 2008 showing Zuma undoing his belt lasciviously while “Lady Justice” is being held down by his political cronies, apparently about to be raped. After its appearance Zuma started proceedings to sue Zapiro for infringing his dignity, but later withdrew.

What is the role of such lewd political artworks? Should they be banned out of respect for the person’s dignity? Or are they legitimate commentary which, if expressed in another medium – say words or film – would not raise such hackles? It comes with the territory of being a high-profile public figure that political adversaries can portray you in almost any manner.

In art as in journalism, the right to offend is inherent to freedom of expression. Once censorship begins, it is a dangerous slippery slope – epitomized by Motsoeneng forbidding SABC staff at a recent editorial workshop to question Zuma in coverage for next month’s elections, instructing them to “respect” him, because he is the president.

Does this mean he should be “untouchable”. The disrespect he has shown towards the people of this country has lost him the right to get respect in return. The portrayals of him by Mabulu, Zapiro and Murray – and others – are right on target.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

Is Zapiro a racist or victim of doublespeak?

Zapiro cartoon monkey organ grinder

Last week’s cartoon by Zapiro (above) sparked a racial furore in South Africa about depictions of black people and censorship

 

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 geoffs@icon.co.za)

Zuma’s wrecking ball gives SA satirists a field day

Zuma_Nkandla(P)

Protests against SA Pres Jacob Zuma are simmering for corruption and mismanagement, calling for his removal. In the photo, his private home, which was upgraded using R246m of state money.

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.”

ANTI ZUMA MARCH JHB 16 DEC 2015 (84) CROPPED

At a rally of thousands in Johannesburg, former Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi demanded the ANC fire Zuma

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)