Zapiro talks about childhood nightmares, the army and hypocrisy
She welcomes him with envy – because he is brave, because he takes on holy cows and because he emphatically and irreverently critiques the system.
This is how Prof Marlene van Niekerk of the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at Stellenbosch University welcomed the cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) to the Department’s colloquium on Thursday evening, 16 Augustus 2012.
The colloquium consisted of Van Niekerk entering into a discussion with Zapiro on his work, while nine poets (Leon de Kock, Antjie Krog, Bibi Slippers, Rimestein, Adrian “Different” van Wyk, Pieter Odendaal, Loftus Marais, Marlene van Niekerk and Hemelbesem) read their poems based on a Zapiro cartoon.
In an earlier interview, Van Niekerk said she regarded the colloquium as a support action for Zapiro, who has to appear in court on 25 October. Pres Jacob Zuma instituted legal proceedings against Zapiro because of a cartoon depicting Zuma as raping Lady Justice.
Zapiro said he was overwhelmed by the poets’ work and that each poem perfectly complemented the particular cartoon.
Van Niekerk described Zapiro as a comic historian who, amongst his other functions, holds up a mirror between the past and the present.
Zapiro revealed that, as a child, he often had nightmares and that his mother encouraged him to draw the monsters which manifested in his uneasy dreams.
“The nightmares stopped, but I kept on drawing,” he said.
As a child he grew up in a house where his mother was closely involved in the anti-apartheid movement as a member of the United Democratic Front (UDF) branch in Claremont, Cape Town. It was inevitable that his drawings would also gain a political colour. He showed one of his illustration done in 1987, in which a group of people are confronted by the police. Among those depicted are his mother, his then girlfriend (now his wife) and his sister. A much younger Zapiro included himself in the illustration with a sketchbook in hand.
He was arrested in 1989 and detained for some time in Pollsmoor Prison.
“During my interrogation, one of the officers asked me why I depicted policemen as pigs. I told him I drew what I saw.”
While he was in the army, he refused to carry a weapon. “There were other people who refused to carry weapons for religious reasons. They were regarded as ‘slegmense’. But for the officers I truly was ‘vuil’.”
One of the officers made him a pole that was knocked together from a number of parts and with which he had to fall in on the parade ground. When he picked up the “pole”, it fell apart. One of the corporals ordered him to stand guard with it.
“This was not a good idea. When the generals and colonels drove out of the camp that Sunday, they looked, and looked again. It was the most perfect double take you can imagine.”
With great pleasure, Zapiro described how, when he was asked who ordered him to stand watch with the pole, he could point out the guilty corporal.
He studied architecture for five years in America, but knew all along that it was not really what he wanted to do. In his fourth year, the architecture students were encouraged to travel. He went to Brussels and turned up unannounced at the studio of Hergé, the creator of Tintin.
“Hergé was unfortunately not there, but his assistants welcomed me warmly and showed me the studio.”
One night shortly thereafter, he knocked at the door of the artist responsible for the Asterix comics in Paris and was equally cordially welcomed there.
“These two experiences provided the turning point that made me realise that I had to work as an artist.”
Although he did not pursue a career as architect, architectural studies stood him in good stead. “They taught me to view things as metaphors.”
When he wakes up in the mornings, he immediately switches on a small radio so that he can listen to the news in between getting his children ready for school. A cartoon begins with words – he makes “word maps” and then a number of small sketches before starting to work on the final product. He even draws while travelling on planes, using the windows as a light box.
As a Jewish cartoonist, he is praised by Muslims when he criticises Israel. But when he criticises Muslims on occasion, he is vilified by the same people who previously praised him.
“Every individual and group has a line that cannot be crossed.”
Regarding the criticism that as a white Jewish man from an affluent background he has no right to be critical of the current government, Zapiro says it is “nonsense that anyone has to remain quiet.”
“I sometimes feel that I am something of a hypocrite. But one cannot keep quiet.”
Sometimes, he even takes on people that he regards as his mentors. “Willie Hofmeyr, the deputy director of public prosecutions, is someone without a corrupt hair on his head. And he is a good friend of mine. But I have twice drawn awful cartoons featuring him because I believe he was instrumental in having corruption charges against Jacob Zuma withdrawn.”
In conclusion, he said his advice for young cartoonist was to always be passionate about what they are doing and about what is happening around them. – STEPHANIE NIEUWOUDT