Quick on the draw


The powerful people in African newspapers are not the journalists, but the cartoonists, writes Joe Humphreys in Pretoria

Legal history was made in South Africa recently when a local politician served papers in the biggest defamation suit the country has ever seen. But more surprising than the litigant's demand for damages (estimated at between €7 million and €14 million) was the particular form of media deemed to have caused chief offence: not a newspaper article, nor radio report, but a set of cartoons. Three images in particular, penned by South Africa's leading cartoonist Zapiro, have been named in the defamation case - one that highlights the significance, and impact, of political cartoons in Africa.

Whereas Woodward and Bernstein are the benchmark for good journalism in the US, young media graduates in Africa often aspire to being the next Zapiro or Gado, the Tanzanian-born illustrator who frequently riles the powers-that-be in his neighbouring Kenya.

"Cartoonists are the envy of most journalists in Africa," says prominent Nigerian illustrator Tayo Fatunla. "In the African press, cartoons come first - before any other content of the paper."

Not only are such illustrations more likely to be read ahead of news reports, especially where literacy rates are low, but they are given special prominence by newspaper owners who see them as a more effective means of editorialising than, say, a 500-word essay.

As Fatunla puts it: "The African press sees cartoons as a means of communicating on behalf of the masses to the government. People like Gado, or Zapiro, or even myself, we know how people feel about government, society and the world, and we become visual commentators on behalf of the masses."

Zapiro (real name Jonathan Shapiro) has become a particular phenomenon in his home country, wielding greater influence in political debate than perhaps any other media commentator. In April this year he became the first member of his profession to be named South African Journalist of the Year, beating more than 180 columnists, photographers, and news writers to the prize.

Not so long ago, he had incurred the wrath of the apartheid government, attracting both censorship and persecution, including a five-day spell in solitary confinement. But in his latest battle, the complainant comes from the other side of South Africa's traditional divide. Former deputy president Jacob Zuma claims to have been "crucified" by the media - and particularly by Shapiro - during his recent rape trial, in which the politician was found not guilty. Zuma, who has ambitions of rising to his country's highest political office, is demanding 1.65 million (15 million rand) in damages from Shapiro for a series of cartoons drawn during the trial, and a multiple of this from the various newspaper outlets that published the illustrations.

One of the offending cartoons depicted Zuma being sworn in at his rape trial with two fingers raised - and crossed. Another cartoon illustrated a mock code of ethics, named the "Jacob Zuma Moral De-generation Handbook".

Point three of the guide read: "Before casual unprotected sex, remove brain and place on bedside table."

Shapiro believes the law suit is aimed at pressurising the media into taking a less critical stance of Zuma as he faces his last big obstacle to a shot at the presidency - a corruption trial, the future of which will be decided in court tomorrow.

"It's clearly an intimidatory tactic," says the cartoonist. "But I won't be intimidated."

Indeed, Shapiro has recently taken to depicting the politician in cartoons with a shower nozzle sticking out of his forehead to highlight Zuma's admission in court that he had showered after sex because he believed it would reduce the risk of him contracting Aids.

HOWEVER, NOT ALL cartoonists in Africa operate with the same level of freedom. "Thank God Zapiro is in a democratic nation," says Fatunla, who was frequently censored by state-owned media in Nigeria.

In many countries, cartoonists work under the threat of persecution and even death. In 1995, a leading Algerian cartoonist was murdered, and the following year one of his colleagues was convicted of mocking the Algerian flag. Zimbabwean illustrator Tony Namate has gained international recognition for standing up to his country's dictatorial regime, while some other illustrators have effectively gone into hiding.

Teju Olaniyan, a professor of literature at the University of Wisconsin in the US who closely follows the work of African cartoonists, says one of Ghana's leading illustrators, Akosua, has become "virtually impossible to reach", so careful were his employers not to reveal his identity.

"In virtually all African countries with thriving political cartooning traditions, there have been - at one time or the other - more or less overt threats to the cartoonists, leading to internal censorship in the newspaper houses for which the cartoonists work, as a pre-emptive measure against state harassment."

Unlike "ordinary journalism", cartoons are neither objective, nor meant to be so, and this gives them their power, says Olaniyan. "Because most mass media outlets in Africa are still government-owned, the African audience already has too much of 'objectivity', which frequently becomes very difficult to distinguish from official propaganda. What it needs more of is not 'objectivity' but a different and frequently irreverent take on what is considered 'objective', and the latter is what African political cartoons provide in rich measure.

"Cartoonists are contributing immensely to the democratisation trend in Africa by teaching their audience how to have of a healthy dose of ironic distance from the institutions of governance," he continues. "African politicking has always been a zero-sum, winner-takes-all game, which makes the stakes and the possibilities of violence higher. To have some ironic distance spiced with laughter is to accept that politics is nothing but negotiation, and a loser today may win tomorrow."

For cartoonists, it is a delicate balancing act. Where free speech is not guaranteed, he or she must be imaginative and indirect, making a point intelligently and to some degree in the hope the ruling regime - but not the public - is too stupid to recognise it.

Fatunla recalls that one of his more controversial cartoons depicted two men talking to one another, with one saying: "I dreamt of a better Nigeria. There were no austerity measures, there was no inflation and people were going about feeling happy." The other was asking: "Who was the President?" While no names were mentioned, it was an obvious slight against the then head of state - a man about whom no one would have dreamt positively.

Recognising the power of such satire, some politicians have tried to beat the cartoonists at their own game - employing illustrators in state-owned papers. However, says Olaniyan, most governments "lack the imagination" to do this, and tend to resort to blunter instruments.

That's not to say all independent cartoonists are above reproach. The government of Malawi this year condemned a set of cartoons in the country's two main newspapers in part because they were somewhat crude and sexually explicit. One of the papers subsequently apologised for depicting the country's Muslim vice-president kneeling before a Christian altar in readiness for the receipt of the Eucharist.

Unless care is taken, cartoons can also pander to racist or sexist prejudices. Olaniyan notes that women's issues "don't appear much on the radar" of the mainly male cartooning fraternity. In addition, cartoonists from across Africa tend to display a knee-jerk anti-American streak, opting to cover perceived international injustices rather than domestic wrongdoing.

A REMINDER OF the cartoonist's ethical responsibility came earlier this year with the protests over the infamous mock illustrations of Prophet Muhammad. The most violent single incident anywhere in the world was in north-eastern Nigeria, where 16 people were killed in a riot.

Ironically, cartoonists in Africa attract jealous glances from their peers in Europe and the US. "All cartoonists want a response from the people being lampooned," says Olaniyan. "The American cartoonists I talk to are kind-of envious when they hear of an African counterpart being jeered in his parliament. It's as if they want to be persecuted," he laughs.

Shapiro says he is often taken aback by the reactions his cartoons provoke. He recalls that Nelson Mandela once called him "out of the blue" to say how much he admired his work - this despite the fact that the cartoonist had been taking a more critical stance against the post-apartheid government.

African cartoonists are also attracting increased kudos internationally for the quality of their work. "Gone are the days when Western media would get a Western cartoonist to draw about Africa. They have an African cartoonist to do it now," says Fatunla, who is currently based in England and has given cartoon workshops across the globe, including at the Cat Laughs festival in Kilkenny. "Ask me if cartoons will change the world. I can't say they will," he remarks. "But they do make an impact."

Teju Olaniyan has compiled an online database of African cartoons at: www.africa.wisc.edu/politicalcartooninginafrica; Zapiro's cartoons can seen at www.mg.co.za/zapiro