Zapiro's cartoon accusing Jacob Zuma of raping the justice system is vulgar, and misrepresents the situation, writes sipho Seepe in Business Day.  Zuma has never refused to appear in court, and is using legal means to fight his case, as is his right. 

Prof Sipho Seepe writes in Business Day:

ON SUNDAY I returned from a conference in the US, arranged by the US embassy in Pretoria to cement relationships between the state of New York and SA.

Our exploration of opportunities around military-to-military, military-to-civilian, and civilian-to-civilian collaborations took place against the background of an exciting electoral campaign.

Barack Obama’s entry into the presidential race raised the possibility of change among ordinary folk, who have funded his campaign. His message that the campaign is not about him but about people who are tired of George Bush’s policies seems to have found fertile ground.

The central message is that democracy is about people; institutions of democracy exist to serve people and not vice versa. The refrain “The people versus so and so” in the US courts underscores the fact that the prosecution acts in the public interest. Sadly, this notion seems to be missing in our public discourse. Most public commentary creates an impression that the criminal justice system exists to protect democracy from the great unwashed, who should be feared.

I returned to a controversy over the Zapiro cartoon in the Sunday Times. Over the years I have admired Zapiro’s work, which provides sharp political commentary. His work complemented my “No Blows Barred” columns in the Mail & Guardian and when I compiled them into a book, Speaking Truth to Power, I used the cartoons for effect.

My criticism of the African National Congress (ANC) leadership has invited all sorts of derision and opprobrium. I have tried to offer criticism that is not disrespectful. There is a difference between being robustly critical and being downright rude and disrespectful.

Do I find Zapiro’s cartoon offensive? Definitely! Indeed, Zapiro acknowledges as much: “When the idea popped into my head, I thought it was too heavy.” The cartoon raises an important question. Does freedom of expression allow us to violate the dignity of others? Who draws the line between freedom of expression and gratuitous insults?

There are other reasons why the cartoon is problematic, aside from its vulgarity. First, the suggestion that Jacob Zuma is engaged in acts that violate the constitution needs examination. I am not aware of Zuma refusing to appear before a court of law. No court has found his attempts to explore the legal possibilities available to him to be frivolous. If truth be told, some judges were prepared to grant him the relief he sought: two of the five judges who made the Supreme Court of Appeal ruling against him thought his application had merit. Faced with conflicting views, was it not reasonable for him to take the matter up with a higher court? That the Constitutional Court ruled against him does not change the fact that other judges hold a different view.

What are we to make of the judges who ruled in Zuma’s favour? Are we to assume they are also bent on violating the constitution or raping the justice system? What about the many citizens who think Zuma would not get a fair trial? Should we infer that they have no respect for the constitution?

The next issue relates to racial sensitivity. Of course, Zapiro and company could easily produce their nonracial struggle credentials and argue that the cartoon was not meant to be racially offensive. They may even produce blacks who agree with them. But this does not detract from the fact that many did find the cartoon racially offensive.

Many scholars have argued that experiencing the world as a white person enables whites to view race issues with some form of detachment. This detachment allows them to view blacks’ response as an over-reaction. For blacks these are not isolated events but a perpetuation of the stereotype that Africans are beings of a lower order who turn a blind eye to rape.

We can be arrogant and dismiss the sense of grievance. Alternatively, we can be humble and accept that we do not have a monopoly on wisdom in human affairs.

# Prof Seepe is president of the South African Institute of Race Relations. This column first appeared in Business Day on 10 September 2008.