Unbridled racism disguised as artistic license

It is regrettable that 21 years into democracy: a democracy that thousands of people fought and died for, our hard won Constitutional freedoms are still being abused by sectors of white South Africa to justify apartheid-era, and even colonial era thinking.

It is further regrettable that despite the official end of a dehumanizing system that relegated black South Africans to sub-human status, such positions still hold sway among some white South Africans.

This has been starkly brought to the fore in recent times by the likes of KwaZulu-Natal estate agent, Penny Sparrow who on Facebook described black beach-goers as monkeys, garnering hundreds of ‘likes’ with her post.

And now the cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, known popularly as Zapiro, has in a leading newspaper depicted the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) Shaun Abrahams as a monkey dancing to the tune of an organ grinder.

Not that the cartoon is surprising: the cartoonist has a long history of portraying post-apartheid political figures in South Africa as either criminals (gang rapists), infantile (little children holding lollipops) and sub-human (either as monkeys or holding bananas). The one common denominator in these images is that those being portrayed are black.

It is no wonder then that it was one of his cartoons (depicting President Jacob Zuma) that was used by a Johannesburg school recently as part of an exam question ostensibly around who they would choose to vote for.

The answers of the students were telling: they associated the image with attributes like thievery, laziness and corruption. The teacher gave the pupil full marks and praise for their answer.

It seems Zapiro’s cartoons are now being used by racists in our country to glamorize their prejudice in popular culture.

It would seem that more and more white South Africans are openly venting their conservative views, once previously only relegated to the dinner table in the suburbs – on public platforms such as social media and newspapers. They nearly always attempt to justify themselves by claiming their comments need to be ‘contextualized.’

Likewise, Zapiro has attempted to explain himself by indicating that he had previously drawn apartheid-era leaders as monkeys. In time, no doubt, we will also hear of his role in the anti-apartheid struggle.

There is a phenomenon developing in society where our engagement as a society is increasingly vulgar and disrespectful. Ala Naomi Chomsky, the media lives up to its role of manufacturing consent in this instance establishing a paradigm that political figures do not enjoy the same right to dignity as the rest of the populace. Freedom of speech and artistic license is wantonly abused. The ultimate aim is the undermining of the democratically government.

Zapiro gleefully plays into this narrative then calls his cartoon ‘a mistake’. Of course this is questionable, notably because there is a long, painful and well-known history of this form of depiction by the colonial artists of Europe and the artists of the slavery-era in the US.

We see for instance these days the tens of thousands of euros in penalties given to European football clubs when their supporters mock black players from the stands by making monkey chants or throwing bananas onto the field.

Everyone knows, then, including Zapiro, that using a monkey to portray a black person is offensive and crude, and akin to the Sambo and Aunt Jemima cartoons of the slavery era.

The ANC notes that ‘Zapiro’ has attempted to justify the cartoon by calling it ‘a metaphor easily intelligible to readers across the board.’

Given the overwhelmingly negative reception to the image across several social media platforms since its publication, it is also questionable whether his claim of the cartoon being well received even holds water.

In justifying his cartoon, the artist appears not to have considered the affront to not just the dignity of the NDPP, but also the dignity of millions of black South Africans.

Yet again, as he did with his libelous ‘Lady Justice’ cartoon, this artist, under the guise of both freedom of speech and artistic license, resorts to offensive stereotypes in a bid to score a few laughs. It is a poor attempt at satire that fails dismally, not least of all owing to its lack of intellectual rigor.

That anyone then could make such a ‘mistake’ – beggars belief. The very fact that he calls it a mistake it is also a tacit admission that he has crossed the line and moved beyond the realm of freedom of speech. The system of co-regulation once again fails as minimal or no recourse is available to the offended.

Whilst the right to freedom of speech and expression is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the right to dignity holds equal value in the Constitution.

As the governing party that played a formative role in the drafting of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, the ANC affirms its respect for the rights of all South Africans.

At the same time we urge those with access to public platforms such as newspapers, to exercise this right wisely, or accept their complicit and explicit role in the continued dehumanization of the black majority, regardless of the hand of reconciliation offered.


Posted in Phambili
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