This past Wednesday legendary cartoonist, Zapiro, joined the ranks of the likes of Susan Sontag, Patti Smith, Steven Spielberg, and our very own Johnny Clegg and William Kentridge, when he was bestowed the award of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. The award recognises those individuals who have made significant contributions to the enrichment of the arts and literature, and whether you agree with his politics or not, you can’t deny the contribution that Zapiro’s work has made to South Africa. He makes people laugh, sometimes he makes people angry, but most importantly he makes us think about and discuss what’s happening in broader society.
Born on the 27th October 1958, Zapiro, whose real name is Jonathan Shapiro, was a young adult at the height of apartheid. In an effort to avoid conscription, Zapiro enrolled to study architecture, but soon realised that it wasn’t a good fit, and transferred to the Michaelis School of Fine Art, at which point he was enlisted. At odds with his government, and with no intention of harming ‘the enemy’, Zapiro refused to carry arms during his two years of national service, and upon returning home soon became active in the newly formed United Democratic Front (UDF). Through the UDF Zapiro became involved in the End Conscription Campaign – an alliance of the UDF composed of conscientious objectors, and supporters who opposed the conscription of all white South African men into military service. Zapiro put his talent as an artist to good use, designing the logo for the campaign. As a member of the UDF, Zapiro was arrested under the Prohibition of Illegal Gatherings Act, and having come to the attention of the government was subsequently monitored by the military intelligence division of the South African Defence Force.
Having already entered the world of illustration through his work as a political cartoonist for the newspaper, South, in 1988 Zapiro was awarded a coveted Fulbright scholarship to study cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York. But shortly before he left for America, Zapiro was detained by the infamous security police. Fortunately though he was soon released and allowed to continue with his travels.
On his return to South Africa in 1991, Zapiro produced a series of educational comics. Roxy focused on Aids education, Tomorrow People helped explain how democracy works, and a Trolley Full of Rights was aimed at the prevention of child abuse.
Soon though Zapiro returned to his first love, newspapers. Over the past fifteen years his work has appeared regularly in the Sowetan, the Cape Argus, the Mail & Guardian, and the Sunday Times to name but a few, and he is currently employed as the editorial cartoonist for both the Sunday Times and the Daily Maverick.
And at the same time as keeping South Africans entertained – and most importantly, informed – Zapiro has also been kept busy with legal battles, as he continues to speak his truth, and in the process, sometimes upset those in power. The role of the political cartoonist is a very important one, but often also incredibly difficult, as the French Ambassador, Aurélien Lechevallier, so succinctly put it on Wednesday evening:
They play with fire. And when I say fire – I refer to all its meanings. One mistake and a bonfire is lit. One step across the border and the dragon of censorship is awake……three steps away from the politically correct and you may unleash the fury of the government and the faithful servants of the moral laws. Every day, they walk on the tightrope. But when they walk, like Zapiro, on the ground, they really play with a good type of fire. The kind of fire that ignites laughter when you would think you are no longer able to laugh. The kind of fire that heals the pain, that lifts the suffering.”