Cartoonists belong in the tradition of court jesters and iimbongi, who have a licence to push the boundaries in order to speak truth to power, writes Mail & Guardian ombud Franz Kruger in the newspaper.  He was discussing the furore around the Zapiro cartoon which shows the ANC leader about to rape Lady Justice.   

Franz Kruger writes in the Mail & Guardian:

Several different strands have emerged in the public furore around the now famous Zapiro cartoon of tripartite alliance leaders urging Jacob Zuma to rape Lady Justice.

The crudest response came from ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, who said the cartoon was "disrespectful of the leadership of the ANC and the alliance. One day Zuma will be Zapiro's president and he will have to respect him."

Respect is a fine thing, but in a democracy it is not something that automatically attaches to prominence. It has to be earned. In fact, it is the job of cartoonists to be disrespectful of those in high office and not to allow status to silence them.

Closely allied to this line of attack is the view that the cartoon is racist and part of a media project to undermine the new order. Malema said: "There are white racist journalists who project African leadership as irresponsible and we will never allow that."

In a more measured comment Sipho Seepe wrote in Business Day that "many did find the cartoon racially offensive", pointing out that white people have difficulty in understanding the depth of sensitivity felt by black people on issues of race.

We are all shaped by our backgrounds and white people do well to concede that race must "feel" different to us. But I do think that Zapiro's own defence holds water: for one thing, his cartoons of the previous white rulers were at least as brutal as any he has drawn more recently.

And, while on the subject of sexual imagery, some may remember that he drew former president PW Botha in the middle of sex with his new and much younger wife, while telling the Truth Commission on the phone that he was too ill to attend their hearings.

Even more persuasively Zapiro points out that he is tackling people in power who happen to be black, rather than because they are black. The Malema argument, often expressed by ANC leaders, sees attacks on black leaders as inevitably racist, which in effect attempts to put them beyond criticism. And that can't be reasonable.

Another strand in the debate has been the accusation that it was insensitive to use the image of rape"in a country where we have a serious scourge of fighting violence against women and in particular rape", as the ANC, Youth League and SACP said in their joint statement.

*Franz Kruger is the ombud of the Mail & Guardian. This article first appeared in the newspaper on 12 September 2008.


Yet it seems to me that the image does nothing to make light of rape. On the contrary, it relies heavily on the idea that this is an act of utmost brutality. This is not a cartoon that is meant to be a joke.

Zuma's travails in the past couple of years also mean that the cartoon immediately evokes the memory of his own rape trial, which ended in his acquittal. To some observers, such as Adam Habib of the University of Johannesburg, the cartoon is saying that Zuma was guilty of rape, no matter what the court found.

I'm sure any defamation case Zuma may bring as a result of this cartoon will try to establish that this is its meaning.

I think this interpretation reads too much into the cartoon, however; the primary point here clearly has to do with the approach he and his allies are taking to his legal problems. It's an attempt to rape the legal system, the cartoon says.

But the reference to his actual rape case can't be missed, and Zapiro must have foreseen the way in which this resonance would further sharpen the comment. It's a little disingenuous to say, as he has done, that Zuma's personal history is his problem. It seems clear that this has played a major part in fuelling the outrage from the ANC and its allies.

What Zapiro has drawn is a common metaphor, that of the rape of justice, itself well established in the persona of a blindfolded woman carrying scales. In written form the image evokes little comment. But as a drawing it seems to carry much more weight.

As a word, rape can remain abstract, while in the image we have to look the violence in the eye: we are confronted with the anguish and fear on the face of the woman, the sight of partially exposed buttocks and many other unpleasant details.

Pictures and images have to be handled with some care, since they can be offensive and shocking, but I think that some sensitivities are more worthy of consideration than others.

I have been asking myself how this cartoon is different from the Mohammed cartoons that sparked such controversy some time ago. At the time I argued that they deliberately set out to offend religious sensitivities and that this put them beyond the pale.

It seems to me that the Zapiro cartoon has offended against sensitivities that are mainly political – as Malema says, they are seen as disrespectful of some political leaders. I don't think newspapers have to be as careful about these kinds of sensitivities.

Some years ago an imbongi — praise-singer — jumped on to a chair next to President Thabo Mbeki at a meeting with traditional leaders and delivered a performance that was a stinging rebuke, while Mbeki listened with a bowed head.

This is the tradition to which cartoonists belong. Much like the court jesters of the European Middle Ages, they have licence to be cheeky.