Was it OK for a cartoonist to portray the loser in a party contest, who happened to be a woman, as a wounded and bleeding bull? In his column Whither Botswana in Mmegi, Dan Moabi argues that the cartoon did the press no credit.

Dan Moabi writes:

Today I join the raging debate about the cartoon that appeared in Monitor on 28 May 2007 concerning the recent special congress of the Botswana National Front (BNF). I understand that the latest episode of the debate took place yesterday morning on a Gabz FM current affairs programme, which I unfortunately missed.

Apparently, the creator of the controversial cartoon (Billy Chiepe) was one of the panellists on the radio programme. As my informant only listened to the tail end of the programme, he was not certain whether the editor of the newspaper was also on the panel. I hope he was, for it would have been interesting to hear his views on the cartoon.

While there is no doubt that the cartoonist’s views on the matter would have been interesting, I think the editor’s views would have been even more so. After all, it is the editor who finally decides what goes into his paper, having carefully weighed the pros and cons of publishing each of the contributions submitted to him.

As a comment on the outcome of the special congress of the BNF, the cartoon was perhaps rather unkind to Kathleen Letshabo, who was defeated by Otsweletse Moupo for the presidency of the party. In contesting for this position, Letshabo acted entirely legitimately and within her rights as a member of the BNF.

It was therefore disappointing that in depicting her as a battered, bleeding and wailing bull being castrated, the cartoonist portrayed such a negative impression of her. It was as if by contesting the presidency of the BNF, Letshabo had committed some unpardonable offence and had to be depicted in the dimmest light possible.

On 03 July 2007, Monitor published a letter from a women’s organisation protesting against the publication of the controversial cartoon. In response, the newspaper published an editor’s note in the same edition of the paper explaining the intended message of the cartoon. That message, the editor explained, was derived from the Setswana saying that “Dipoo ga di ke di tlhakanela lesaka”, which means that bulls never share a cattle enclosure. If they were forced to share an enclosure, the bulls would fight until only one was left in the enclosure.

In other words, Monitor cartoon was simply intended to convey this basic message in respect of the leadership of the BNF.

This was fair enough, of course. The BNF leadership contest was hard-fought and bruising. There was, therefore, nothing wrong in using the metaphor of a fight between two bulls to characterise it. Unfortunately, the cartoon seemed somewhat unbalanced, presenting the one bull as completely unscathed and virtuous, and the other as villainous and deserving of the worst possible punishment.

This is neither a true reflection of the recent BNF leadership contest, nor the normal outcome of a fierce fight between two bulls. The intended message of the cartoon was also largely obscured by the fact that while the battered bull clearly symbolised Kathleen Letshabo, the other bull in the cartoon did not reflect Moupo’s image in any way. All of which, regrettably, gives the impression of a cartoon intended more to ridicule and humiliate Letshabo than comment objectively on the significant political event that the BNF special congress was.

Having explained the real message of its cartoon in an earlier edition, on 09 July 2007, the newspaper published an editorial comment entitled “These Women Are Cry Babies”. The comment was an outright and largely unjustified attack on what it describes as “so-called women’s rights activists”.ÂÂÂ
It wondered whether such women were “saying that women who are in leadership positions should not be criticised or shown to be wrong…” Does this suggest that the newspaper’s cartoon was intended to criticise Letshabo and show her to be wrong about something? If so, what blunder had Letshabo committed that she needed to be criticised for and shown to have been wrong about? Or was her crime that she (in the words of the editorial) “used the very same press to attack Botswana National Front leader Otsweletse Moupo who at that time was her boss”?

In my view, the BNF-congress cartoon saga has not done Monitor any credit. While the intention behind the cartoon may have been good, I think the execution was in bad taste. Many people have discussed the matter with me, and they are either also of this view, or worse. I am surprised that after all that has been written and said about the cartoon, the newspaper still sees absolutely nothing wrong with it.

It was good that the newspaper recognised the need to explain to its readers what the message behind the cartoon was intended to be. But it would have been even better had the editor followed that with a polite apology that the intended meaning was either not as clear as the cartoonist had hoped, or was perhaps misinterpreted by the readers. Failure to do this will only further undermine the credibility of our press.

*This column first appeared in Mmegi.