Cartoonists play a unique role in the SA media, writes Glenda Daniels in the Weekender.

Glenda Daniels writes in The Weekender:

THE extremely politically engaged cartooning in SA today demonstrates a high level of freedom of expression, says Andy Mason, veteran South African cartoonist and researcher, whose books What’s So Funny? Under the skin of South African Cartooning (Double Storey Books), and Don’t Joke: the Year in Cartoons (Jacana Media), are due for publication in
time for Christmas.

“Compared with many countries, including the US, we have enjoyed a high level of freedom of expression over the past 15 years. The big question is, can we hold onto it? There is a lot of debate in SA now about freedom of expression, especially in relation to social responsibility. People want answers but I’m afraid there are no easy answers,” he says.

A friend of Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro, and mentor to many of the new young black cartoonists who have emerged over the past decade, Mason has this year, in addition to completing his books on South African cartooning, been at the forefront of setting up the Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts (CCIBA) in the visual arts department at
Stellenbosch Un i v e r s i ty.

The history of South African cartooning from 1819 to 2009 is examined in one of the books, but from quite a subjective point of view, with a lot of anecdotal material. He interviewed at least 30 local cartoonists and satirical artists. The books track political, educational and underground cartooning trends, probe intriguing questions, solve minor mysteries, identify dominant icons and symbols, and make predictions.

Cartooning, he says, is a great field to be in because it’s such an accurate barometer of political and social conditions.
The debates around freedom of expression show diversity of opinion, especially around the portrayal of public figures.
Mason points to the representation of Jacob Zuma, before and after his election to the presidency. “Until quite recently, he was portrayed in a very negative light, as someone who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. But now more nuanced, human portrayals of him are emerging.”

Cartooning is more complex than most people realise; the images cartoonists produce reflect and help create public opinion and attitudes towards political leaders.

“Are our politicians robust enough to endure the mockery of cartoonists? I hope so. Will they continue to support freedom of
expression? They say they will. But there’s an ongoing debate about what kinds of representation are appropriate in the new SA.

“The tradition of hard-hitting caricatures and mockery is highly developed in liberal western democracies. But we also have to
factor in the African tradition in which there is a strong emphasis on respect for leaders.

“People worry about how satire and mockery impacts on their dignity. These are contested principles, germane to the ongoing encounter between Africa and the west.”

Through his work at CCIBA, Mason wants to stimulate the diversity of cartooning. While the Zapiro story is the most complex
and attention-grabbing cartooning-related story in SA, he feels it’s not the only story. The new generation of cartoonists are influenced by Zapiro but don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with him.

Mason, who has been cartooning and publishing underground and educational comics since the ’70s, when he was a student at the then University of Natal, is excited about the changing demographics of South African cartooning, with the emergence of highly professional black cartoonists such as Brandan Reynolds (Business Day), Sifiso Yalo (Sowetan) and Wilson gobhozi (The Star), although, he says, there are still no women newspaper cartoonists.

When Mason began researching the history of South African cartooning for his MA at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, he
repeatedly came up against the question: “Where are the black car toonists?” The reasons were complex but his research showed  “there simply wasn’t an enabling environment that would have allowed them to flourish”.

He then joined forces with fellow Durban cartoonist Nanda Soobben to set up the Durban Cartoon Project. Together the y
have mentored a new wave of black cartoonists, including Yalo, Mgobhozi, Themba Siwela and Qaps Mngandi.

Mgobhozi has a slightly different view to Mason on whether race makes a difference in cartooning. “It is quite interesting, it must be said, that black cartoonists have been given the opportunity to share the same stage with their
white counterparts.

“The way I see it, race does not, and will not, make a difference in cartooning as all cartoonists are not, by any stretch of imagination, biased or favouring by way of colour or political affiliation. It is entirely up to the politicians and/or citizens to deliberately interpret them based on race” says Mgobhozi.

“I always admired and looked up to Zapiro as a boy and aspired to be as successful as him one day. I do look at other many cartoonists' works, here and abroad, for inspirtion,” he says.

Mason explains how he understands Zapiro’s work: “Zapiro mercilessly and brilliantly satirised Zuma. Then Zuma became
president. In that context, Zapiro told me, he didn’t want to diss his own country, he’s proudly South African. He suspended the shower and his caricature became more humanised and more benign.

“This temporary suspension of the shower, a kind of ethical barometer, is typical of Zapiro’s genius. It’s strategic.
“It gives Zuma the benefit of the doubt, while reserving judgment at the same time.”

■ Daniels is an Open Society Foundation media fellow. This article first appeared in The Weekender on 17 September 2009.