Some politicians find little to laugh in cartoons that the rest of the country finds uproariously funny, writes Thom McLachlan in Business Day.  Lawsuits have been served on cartoonists, and the ANC has complained about some iconic images.  But does this amount to a threat to media freedom?

Thom McLachlan writes in Business Day:

IT IS not
only what is written about South Africans in newspapers, but also how
they are depicted in cartoons that gets up politicians’ noses.

Take African National Congress (ANC) head of
communications Jessie Duarte who had a partial humour drought this week
when it came to popular cartoon strip Madam & Eve for depicting Eve
as a domestic worker who will always fill that role.

“I enjoy the comic strip — but will Eve forever be a
domestic worker?” Duarte asked at a Mail & Guardian critical
thinking forum held on Tuesday.

The fact that someone would care about a fictitious,
twodimensional character so much as to make such a statement like this
is surprising, even to its co-creator Rico Schacherl.

“But the fact is that domestic workers are around and
they are going to be exploited. It will not change in the near future
because of the economic realities we face as a nation,” he says.

Schacherl’s reaction shows that while Eve could be seen
just as a domestic worker, she can also be seen as an iconic figure
representing a shortfall in government’s delivery of services and job
opportunities to the poorest of its followers.

In reality of course she is just a two-dimensional character.

Duarte’s comments seen in context were meant to highlight
her perspective on the way race is portrayed in the South African
media. But last year’s fiasco involving former head of the Presidency
in the ANC Smuts Ngonyama’s outrage at the way ANC president Jacob Zuma
has been portrayed in cartoons in the Sunday Times — with a shower
grafted on the top of his head, following his comments that he takes a
shower after sex which is a preventative measure against HIV/AIDS —
indicated a somewhat more defensive stance from government.

Moments later Ngonyama announced the ANC’s intentions to set up a media tribunal.

Insight & Opinion editor at the Sunday Times Fred
Khumalo says, “there is a level of discomfort on the part of public
figures when we pull out our poisonous pens ”.

Khumalo believes that while there has been no scenario
where anybody has candidly said “you cannot do that”, the fact that
legal papers had been served on the paper’s columnist David Bullard and
cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro by Zuma for defamation, prior to his taking
up the party’s presidency, is an indication that there was an uneasy
feeling towards the power of the press.

“Those such as (Minister in the Presidency) Essop Pahad
made threats against both the Sunday Times and the media as a whole
implying a misguided notion that there were some things that we could
not write about.

“There is a belief that some politicians are above the law, they are untouchable,” Khumalo says.

“When a cartoonist gets hit with a million rand lawsuit
— that is an abuse of power. It’s basically a scare tactic,” Schacherl
says referring to the legal claims by Zuma.

Business Day cartoonist Brandan Reynolds, meanwhile says,
“we’re in an exciting phase in this country. We’re playing around with
our newfound freedom and obviously this is upsetting people, but we’re
not in any danger of losing satire in the media.”

“In SA the level to which we stick the knife in — from a
satirical perspective — is relatively mild, compared to the UK or
America,” Schacherl believes.

“When the powers that be are trying to stop satirists from doing their jobs, it means we are doing our jobs properly,” he says.

Schacherl believes there is no need to worry until editors start getting calls to “get rid” of troublemakers.

“When organs of state are used to silence people by
implementing censorship, it is worrying … while I can see there are
character assassinations taking place, to attack the cartoonist is not
correct. It is, after all, an editorial decision to run a cartoon or

“I think our editors have proven to be pretty resilient so far,” he says.

The ANC’s talk of setting up a media tribunal to report
to Parliament has had the media questioning the ruling party’s agenda.
Should there, in fact, be an ulterior motive in favour of a gagged
press, cartoonists and satirists would not escape its sights.

“With all the threats to the media, we might become so
self-aware that cartoonists will not draw as freely as they used to,”
says Stellenbosch University head of journalism Lizette Rabe.

“Political figures should know what they are and that if
they are in the public space they are open to public scrutiny and
cartoonists will depict a visual representation of what they do,” she

Rabe believes that the constitution provides sufficient
support for the media and this should be seen as the guideline to which
we turn when establishing whether a cartoon is promoting hate speech or
if it is defamatory.

Press Council ombudsman Joe Thloloe says the constitution
allows for freedom of expression, as long as it does not incite war or
violence and is not defamatory.

“I do have respect for those in power and for the ruling
party and what it has accomplished. But each day I have to divorce
myself from certain myths and look at scenarios objectively,” says

“Each day we are out there bringing attention to what is
seen as administrative arrogance — that the government in power is
always doing what is right — and each days we poke holes in that notion
while they question who we are to do that. It’s an ironic cycle,” he