Shooting Sacred Cows

Jonathan Shapiro spends his days poking fun at the powerful and famous. Arguably South Africa's best-known syndicated political cartoonist, he has used satire to point out the horrors of his country's old apartheid regime and the flaws and foibles of its new government. It hasn't always been easy: back in the 1980s, the white government arrested and jailed him; today he agonizes over criticizing leaders he admires.

Shapiro, who draws under the name of Zapiro, doesn't only direct his barbs at his home country. No fan of George W. Bush, he has drawn some bitter cartoons ridiculing the U.S. president. One of his drawings shows U.N. weapons inspectors carrying Bush out of the White House. The caption: "Tell Mr. Annan we found another empty warhead." Others have been even harsher, with scatological depictions of surgeons searching for the presidential brain. (Hint: they weren't examining his head.)

Shapiro was one of several international cartoonists invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos last week to discuss how political cartoonists could contribute to society. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz about his work and the responses it has drawn from top political figures like former President Nelson Mandela.

NEWSWEEK: What's your role as a political cartoonist?

Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro: It's to be a person who's able to shoot little arrows into sacred cows and knock politicians off their pedestals, to look out for hypocrisy, advocate for all sorts of things from social justice to peace. Primarily I'm a social commentator rather than someone who's out to get the belly laugh. The belly laugh is one tool that you can use for that purpose.

Many of your cartoons are vehemently anti-George W. Bush. Do you have any qualms about taking on someone as powerful as the U.S. president?

Doing that is so easy. What's much harder is taking on people in your own community. In my case, being Jewish and taking on the Jewish community of South Africa [through anti-Ariel Sharon cartoons] and their unquestioning support of Israel is a much harder thing to do. Taking on people from the [anti-apartheid] struggle I was part of, who are now in positions of power, and who may be doing things I don't agree with, is much harder to do. Taking on Bush is easy by comparison.

The old apartheid regime arrested and jailed you. Were you afraid then?

I was afraid. On one occasion in 1987 the security police came looking for me because of a drawing that I'd published. Luckily I wasn't there, and I [then] went into hiding. Later, when I was least expecting it--I was actually preparing to go on a scholarship to study in the United States--they actually did get me. They came round on their usual 3 a.m. visit and detained me without trial. They kept me in solitary [confinement] for five days and then another six days in prison. Of course I never know how long it was going to be. I was also arrested a number of times. So yes, those were times when I did feel afraid for myself and other members of my family as well.

Were you intimidated by your detention--more cautious about what you drew?

As it happened, my detention came just as I was about to leave the country to study for two years. Had that not been the case, I'm not sure how I would have felt. Maybe it would have made me a little bit nervous for a while.

Are you ever afraid now, under the African National Congress's post-apartheid government?

Certainly I've never felt threatened in that kind of way. There are certain people within the new government who have a slightly disturbing tendency toward authoritarianism, but there are so many checks and balances that in that way their noises are just noises. Certainly in cartooning I'm given huge free rein at the moment. I'm able to publish things that would be very hard to publish in mainstream newspapers in many countries of the world.

Have you had any response from the American community in South Africa about your anti-Bush cartoons?

Last year I was invited to put on an exhibition for a dialogue between U.S. and South African politicians in South Africa. Among the 56 cartoons I put up, there were some not just about George W. Bush, but also about Bill Clinton. The [Americans] demanded the whole exhibition be taken down. In the end, there was not a good compromise: three of the cartoons were taken down. The South African media reacted to such a huge extent I had more interviews in 24 hours than I'd ever done before. I think there was such a huge response because people saw it as part of something much bigger, which is the United States telling other countries and other people what they can and can't talk about, what they can put up [on display]. It was a very stark example.

Are you personally opposed to Bush?

I am anti-Bush. A lot of what he stands for is the antithesis of what I stand for.

Are you only critical of people you disagree with politically?

Even people that I agree with can do something that would be a target for a bit of humor. I've poked fun--very gentle fun--at President Mandela and [Nobel laureate] Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu, two of the people I admire most in the world.

How did they respond?

They both have a great sense of humor. Mandela once phoned me out of the blue while he was still president, and at first he played with me a bit. I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke, and I didn't believe it was him. When I realized it was, I was floored--he was simply phoning me to say he was sorry that the cartoons would no longer be appearing in a particular paper because he liked seeing them every day.

On another occasion I presented him with a puppet that I'd made of him for a pilot TV show. I approached him with it at a public place--he hadn't been warned about it--and I stuck the puppet's hand out. He looked at [the cartoon of his face] and off the cuff said, 'Oh, I believe I have met this gentleman before.'

I wish [current President] Thabo Mbeki had the same sense of humor, but he doesn't.

Are you a funny person to be around when you're not doing cartoons?

I move in and out. I can be deadly serious, [but] sometimes when the kind of quirkiness that is part of our profession hits me then I can be funny for a while. I'm not a laugh-a-minute person or a stand-up comedian. There are some cartoonists like that, but a lot of us are not.

What's more important for a cartoonist? A sense of humor or a sense of the absurd?

That's an interesting question. I would think a sense of the absurd is more important for a political cartoonist, because that could define things like a sense of hypocrisy or a sense of the things one has to be skeptical about. Occasionally you can be very funny about it as well.

This year in Davos, you've taken part in sessions about identity and about confronting the taboos of organized religions. What sort of reception do you get from the movers and shakers here?

Hopefully we're not just a sideshow. I see the cartoonist as contributing to the content, being critical, because we do poke holes in some of the dialogue and find new ways of seeing things.