A discussion with Jonathan Shapiro on 29th November 2017

Zapiro – activist, social commentator and extraordinary political cartoonist

Interviwer : Nastassia Arendse  on 29 November 2017 at 19:03

Originally published on  Moneyweb includes the audio of the interview


NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Born Jonathan Shapiro in Cape Town in 1958, he couldn’t imagine a career in cartooning. So he studied architecture at the University of Cape Town.

Whether you love him or hate him, Jonathan Shapiro, also known as Zapiro, is certainly one of the country’s best social commentators. This is our Wednesday conversation on where it all began.

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  It started for me, as it would for almost any cartoonist you’d speak to, right as a child. I really wanted to be a cartoonist. I will say that I think that all kids are cartoonists, really. Somewhere along the line some of them stop being one, and some of us stay there, because it’s about that kind of unguarded way of looking at the world and at getting a sort of psychological impact from the drawings. Young kids do that. Then they sort of stop. But we carry on – those of us who see the world in a funny way and want to express ourselves through cartoons.

Being influenced by the Giles books that my parents had, then Tintin, then Peanuts, I thought by the time I was about nine years old I wanted to be an assistant to Hergé, who did Tintin, or an assistant to Charles Schulz, who did Peanuts. Then I thought maybe I could actually be a cartoonist myself.

I kind of lost faith in that because of apartheid South Africa. I thought I needed a profession and I needed to stay out of the army – and went to study architecture. And only in fourth year, my practical year, I decided to actually test things and, say, go and meet famous cartoonists when travelling in Europe. I came back to my parents and said “I want to give it all up, I want to become a cartoonist”.

It was very dangerous, because the army then pulled me into the army. I became an activist in the army and that’s when I said maybe I can use cartoons to express myself. By that stage I was 23 years old.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  What was your childhood like?

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  It was comfortable, a white South African childhood, but with one proviso – my mother was a refugee from the Nazis. She fled Nazi Germany with her family and I always say about my mother she is one of those Jews – and I’m afraid there weren’t that many that I noticed in South Africa – who really understand that “never again” means never for everybody, never for anybody. It doesn’t just mean never for Jews.

So she really instilled in us an understanding that we were in a deeply flawed, unjust and evil system. By the time I was eight years old when Verwoerd died I understood that this was a bad guy. I didn’t understand much about it, but I understood he was oppressing black people.

By the time I was about 11 I was trying with another few kids to have a boycott of Republic Day celebrations and that sort of thing. But I didn’t really get off my butt and do something about it because I didn’t really know how. I felt disaffected but I also had a comfortable upbringing.

It really took me all the way through my university period, where I was doing a little bit of helping with the left and all that. But it took something really cataclysmic, like being forced into the army and then refusing to carry a gun to jolt me out of that comfort and say well now you are actually going to have to put yourself on the line.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  You have a funny story about a period in the army that involves a gun.

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  You see, when I went to the army the first thing I did was go to people who had brass things on their shoulders – which I didn’t understand and wasn’t interested in – and said to them. “Look, I’m new here and I don’t want to carry a gun – what do I do?” They gave me those heavy-lidded eyes and looked at each other and said, “You’ll know about it when the time comes”.

I kept trying to bring that time forward. I wanted to get it over with. Eventually the people who were then told to make my life a misery – I was the one out of 700 who was refusing to carry a gun – were the corporals, and they were pretty horrible. They really did try and make my life a misery for about six or seven weeks. I managed to keep myself fit so that I could get fit in three weeks so I could withstand that mental and physical pressure. Eventually they kind of gave up and just one day they gave me a lead pole attached to a funny rifle-butt-looking piece of wood, and they said “Go carry that” – because it was heavy. I wasn’t going to be allowed to not carry anything. It was a little heavier than a rifle. I carried it but it made me a joke, and I liked that. In a way I was there but I was not part of this, and I was definitely not going to shoot or fight for them.

But the real heroes were the people who refused to go, who then spent two years or three years or four years in jail. It was as six-year jail sentence.

Anyway, I had this thing and one day this corporal said to me, “Why aren’t you standing guard with your platoon?” and I said “Oh, I have this [lead pole] and he made me stand guard with it – and it was hilarious. He got into big, big trouble and then they told me to get rid of it. So I smuggled it out of the camp and I’ve got it in my studio still. It’s been on exhibition a couple of times.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Fast forward from that time, do you remember when you had what I suppose some people call a “big break”, where people recognised the work that you do and everybody wanted you to work for them and interpret the way you were seeing the world.

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  I sort of had that in two phases. The first one was not really a financial windfall at all, but it was a massive break for me in the sense that I had this idea of trying to depict – not very long after the whole episode of the rifle, because I became an activist while I was in the army and got arrested while I was in the army – all that started to happen from 1983 to 1986. In 1986 I had the idea of depicting the struggle in a calendar poster. It was very much the struggle that we had in the Western Cape, because I’m from Cape Town. So it was all the different characters.

Archbishop Tutu is sitting here in front of me in this little figurine that I have as I am talking to you. They were much loved but very strongly political people. There was Archbishop Tutu. Allan Boesak at that stage was leading in the UDF. People like Fatima Meer were depicted. But also the people marching and the police and the army who’d been pulled into the townships. A couple of the army people I showed like babies with dummies in their mouths because they were sort of young white boys who didn’t really know what was going on. It was a really interesting and vibrant, colourful thing, but it was very subversive. It was a sort of cutesy-looking thing, the UDF calendar for 1987. But it was very subversive and it had ANC logos, it had flags and it had badges and it had slogans: “MK is coming” and “Botha stop killing our people”, etc. It suddenly got me noticed both by people in the struggle, who wanted copies of this and put their own slogans on it in any spare places, and by the Security Police and the Police who came looking for me and tried to arrest me, tried to detain me. They didn’t find me that time.

And suddenly I was known and then in demand. I got a job at the newspaper South, which was just starting – a struggle newspaper.

Later I went to study in the United States, and when I came back I was doing educational comics for a few years.

I had my second break in early 1994 with the Mail & Guardian – the Weekly Mail was joined to the Mail & Guardian. I got a phone call and they said, “Would you come and be our editorial cartoonist?” That opened huge doors. Within a few months I was in the Sowetan as well, and then suddenly I was in books and people knew who I was. I was able to take part in the New South Africa through these cartoons.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  So people knew who you were. How did you pick your name?

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  It was never Zapiro, it was just Zap when I was young. That was because when I arrived at high school, Grade 8, there was a guy in matric, a prefect and a great sportsman, a very nice guy who was an academic, a real all-rounder, a real hero of the school, who’s name was Shapiro, but spelt the Hungarian way – Szapiro. The guys thought I was his brother, and they saw that Z and said “Zap, you are the young Zap”. I thought that’s a fantastic little thing to put on my drawings. I was already doing drawings and cartoons in my school exercise books.

I then signed things “Zap” for the next many years. In 1984, when I had just met my wife, who was then my girlfriend, Karina, she looked over my shoulder one day when I was doing a really brutal drawing of somebody being killed. I signed it “Zap” and she said “Gee, that’s a helluva kind of lightweight signature for that heavyweight stuff that you are doing now. It looks like a California surfboard logo or something.” I said “You are right.” I spent ages, about another afternoon, having finished the drawing, wondering how I was going to put the rest of my name in there and make it look right. I spent an afternoon on it. And that, since 1984, has been exactly like this, my signature.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Take me through the process of when you sit in front of your desk. How do the ideas come, or what inspires you?

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  I’ve even got this in my pocket here. I’m speaking to people who are not seeing this, but I’m pulling out a tiny little radio – which is kind of odd in the days that people have radios on their cellphones. In among the tissues and whatever else I have in my pocket there is an old Sony – I’m a dinosaur. I do old-style stuff. So I’ve got this little radio that I bought many, many years ago. I don’t want to have stuff coming on my cellphone while I’m doing other things on the cellphone. But this is FM and I listen – that’s what I do from the morning.

I remember staying with a friend in Durban who is also a  cartoonist and he came in one morning, very early, and saw me lying, looking like I was asleep, but plugged into this thing. He said I was taking my news intravenously. So I work with this radio, even while I’m getting the kids ready and making their lunches and whatever. Then I read actual newspapers – I told you I’m a dinosaur. I read bunches of them. But I also look online. I speak to editors occasionally and then I start playing around.

I don’t have a joke or a drawing or whatever. I have a notebook where I put down words – what am I interested in, what subjects are cropping up, what’s my attitude. I write that down, link them, start doing mind maps. It’s very, very conceptual.

And when I’ve decided what I’m going to try and look at, then I try and figure out how I can say that best. If it’s the idea of a message that went wrong, when it becomes a broken telephone, then it’s going to happen in comic strip form. Is it very conceptual, like a person a bomb? Is it very sitcom, like a situation comedy where the joke comes from an interaction between two people? The joke is you’ve got to make them look life-size, very ordinary and show there is something funny in the interplay between them – the situation comedy. Then I decide if it’s one panel or two panels – how best to communicate that message.

It’s as programmatic as that. And then the real twist comes, sometimes when you are not even expecting it, the lateral thinking. That’s very left-brain. Then you get that right-brain thing, which somehow says, oh gosh, and you tweak that word, or tweak that character and it’s going to be really funny or really outrageous. That’s how I work.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Speaking about outrageous, do you ever draw something that doesn’t make it onto the pages or online, where you think hmm, I think this might have gone a bit too far?

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  It happens occasionally. But, as you probably know about me, there are many things where a lot of other people think things did go too far, and I think no, that was perfectly appropriate. The point there is that when I speak to my editors – and I do, I have a good relationship with my editors, I try and speak to them a lot and run things by them. It’s not so that they can tell me, “We are not allowed to do that, or we can’t”. I ask them “Does this work?” That’s the main thing I want to know from them. And if it does work, can we justify it?

That’s a bit of a layered question. These days it will also be: is it going to cause more trouble – because of, say, tangential things, things outside of what it’s actually saying – than the things that it is trying to say? Would it cause more harm than good? That’s where I might say, okay, I’m not going to go that route. I’ll still do something hard-hitting but with a different metaphor or a difference way of saying it. That’s what I’m interested in.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  The title of your current book, Hasta la Gupta, baby, is quite hilarious because when they told me about it I laughed while listening. But what inspired you to start the first book, which was The Madiba Years?

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  The first book was in 1996. I mentioned that I’d started doing cartoons in the Mail & Guardian or Weekly Mail as it became in ’94, and the Sowetan. I had already started in 1995. I thought I’d got to compile these. I had so many drawings and I really wanted to put a book together. But that first book – no matter what kind of genre you are working in, or that I’d already done the cartoons – involved just knowing what’s the format, how are you going to do it, how are you going to say it? it all looks as if it works perfectly well now, but I had to find a format, find a size and find a way to do it, how much text to put in there, to tell people enough but not too much so as to patronise.

So the first book took a long time to get off the ground. I should have done one in ’95. The first book was actually two-and-a-half years’ work, and that was The Madiba Years. After that it was a no-brainer. By the end of the next year I did the same thing: The Hole Truth – the Truth Commission years.

And every year the books had to somehow encapsulate the year, be emblematic of the period we were going through. So you pick any period and it’s got the essence of at least something huge that we were experiencing at the time.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  I’ve got The Last Sushi, which I found quite hilarious, because at that time we were dealing with, almost, parties that don’t happen often in South Africa and so I got one of that.

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  Eating sushi off a naked female.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  What I don’t have – which a friend of mine told me is quite hilarious – is Dead President Walking.

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  That’s last year’s book. Of course I could have done that title for this year as well.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Tell me a little about Hast la Gupta, baby.

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  Hasta la Gupta, baby – the image is Pravin Gordhan as the Zumanator, and he is bursting into the Saxonwold shebeen. The whole thing is done gangster-style. There in the front you see two of the Guptas with a dim light on them, and Brian Molefe on the other side getting a helluva fright and starting to cry. Behind the door, getting smacked by the door of the Saxonwold shebeen, is none other than Jacob Zuma. He is only a waiter there, about to deliver some drinks to the Guptas. So it sort of sums up that process where you have the good-versus-evil thing of Pravin as fighting the good fight against this. But it came out of a drawing where he had been fired and he was bursting into the portfolio committees.

That whole big drawing was called Zumanator, and he was saying “Hasta la Gupta, baby”. It felt like that cartoon, slightly tweaked, became the most emblematic of the idea of state capture, the Saxonwold shebeen and all of that stuff this year.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  The one thing that you also do which I find quite amazing is the figurines. There is the Madiba figurine and Julius Malema. There is President Jacob Zuma with the famous showerhead and the recent one is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Have they seen these figurines? Let’s start off with Julius Malema.

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  Unfortunately Madiba never saw the figurine. I always wanted to do it. What he did see was almost the exact face on the first puppet we ever made for ZANEWS. So full size, not these tiny little guys. He saw the real thing. On the day he delivered his final speech to parliament I went to a sort of garden party afterwards and I was walking around with the puppet, and I was saying [imitating Madiba’s voice], “Hah-low, how are you, very nice to see you.” People were ignoring me, they were treating the puppet almost like the real Madiba. It was amazing to see because the puppets are very real, with the exact faces. I absolutely loved working with Madiba’s face. As I approached Madiba, I stuck the puppet’s hand out and he said [in Madiba’s voice], “Oh, I believe I have met this gentleman before”. It was a most incredible meeting. So he did at least see that, and he loved the cartoons. He had some of the originals as well.

Juju – I met Juju last week for the first time. I’d never met him before, and I went up to him with this in my hand, and I introduced myself and I showed him this. He laughed and said “Oh, you have to make that again. Look at me now.” This Juju is the big, fat Juju, with the small little buns but a massive stomach, and he is doing the shower thing because he is making that shower gesture because they started singing that song, “The shower man is giving us trouble – he took the shower from me.” I thought it was very funny to put it in the caricature.

Zuma – I don’t know if he’s seen it. I have certainly confronted him when he sued me. Sometimes people say to me, “How can people even want to have Zuma in their homes?” You’d be surprised how many people want to have this version of him dancing on money and with a shower in his head.

The Arch – fantastic guy. He has retired now and he lives in Hermanus. I know the Arch well and I’ve had many interactions with him as well. I meet many, many people through these things over the year. So I managed to set up a meeting with him when he was doing a public engagement. I didn’t want to bother him. I said afterwards I’d come and meet him with this. And, as I approached him with this thing in my hand – he hadn’t even seen it yet – he said to me, “Oh, there he is! And he draws me with a big nose!” At that very moment a photographer pitched up and I gave the Arch this figurine and he laughed. There is a picture of us both leaning in, both with big noses over this little figurine. The figurine is the Arch walking on water, as I’ve been drawing him since 1996. He loved it and he sent me a message saying, “Thank you so much.”

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Because you mentioned earlier that you consume your news using various platforms, what about the world as you see it right now makes you excited? There is a lot of bad stuff happening, but there is also good stuff happening. What excites you about where the future of anything is going?

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  In the way that #GuptaLeaks has come out of the Daily Maverick and amaBhunghane has been collaborating with Daily Maverick, and they’ve been doing some of the work on that for seven years, you are starting to see things coalesce to hopefully bring down this cabal that runs this place now, which should never have happened. The ANC has taken its eye off the ball to a terrible extent – you are seeing new things come out of the leaks. You are seeing people fracturing off. I’ve seen Makhosi Khoza is possibly starting a new party. I know new parties don’t have a strong history in South Africa, but this may be different. There may be a coalescing of progressive forces around a number of things, not just her new party. Maybe there is something that can break this deadlock.

Internationally you are also seeing movements of various kinds, where people release things that were previously secret, where you have women standing up against the abuse that they’ve been suffering forever. Those things are shaking things. Suddenly you’ve got women standing up against #MeToo, you’ve got stuff that previously would have gone on for months and months and months. You’ve got people getting fired from very senior positions because they’ve been seen to be abusing women.

So those are the kinds of things. I just think that activism of various kinds shows up and takes on the powerful. That’s of course very exciting for a cartoonist, because that’s the sort of thing we are trying to do.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: ; One day when you are sitting comfortably – perhaps even retired, maybe not completely retired, and every now and again wanting to comment via your cartoons – when you look back at the years, what do you want to be remembered for?

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  I must say, if I pick up one of these books and look at the back – this one is the 22nd – I definitely think part of it is for me to be remembered for having consistency. I hope I’ll be remembered as someone who has done this in a progressive way, not a reactionary way, somebody who has recorded what’s been going on but has also commented and laughed at and changed a few things here and there. I definitely feel that’s a big thing, and the books have been a big part of that.

Having been in that previous decade an anti-apartheid activist, my sense of justice and fair play and getting things right in a country was actually formed by the fight against apartheid. It was formed before the New South Africa, and that’s what’s informed my continuing. If people remember me for being consistently progressive and consistently on the ball, I’ll be very happy. I do find that every day school students or people now at university or doing other things, people in their twenties, even in their thirties, come up to me and say, my first experience of politics in South Africa was through your cartoons and through either seeing them in the paper or in their school exams or a teacher brought it to school or people put them up on the fridge or whatever – that is fantastic. That I think is my favourite reaction.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Zapiro, thank you so much for coming through today.

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  Thanks very much for having me.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE:  Where can people get your book?

JONATHAN SHAPIRO:  They can get it at most bookshops, certainly Exclusive Books. We are doing a number of signings and launches with Exclusive Books, but many other book shops as well. It’s published by Jacana, who have been my publishers for quite some time. Luckily I can say they are flying off the shelves and I hope people enjoy them.