Interview for French speaking website www.lafriquedusud.com and Cape Town Decouvertes magazine. Director and Editor in Chief - Stephane
-How did you become cartoonist ? and why ?
I’ve been drawing in a cartoony style since I was very young, maybe about four years old, and from the age of about eight I wanted to become a cartoonist. I loved (and still love) Tintin and Peanuts. When I was a teenager I somehow lost confidence in cartooning, partly because as a white male, I was eligible for conscription into the apartheid army, so I felt I had to do something more academic at university to stay out of the army. I did architecture for a few years and while travelling during my practical year, I went to Hergé’s studio in Brussels and met Uderzo in Paris. I decided I had to go back to my real passion, cartooning. Unfortunately this meant I had to go to the army first. I refused to carry a gun and got involved in the anti-apartheid movement while still in the army. During this time I taught myself cartooning.
-Best part of your job? what do you particularly like?
What I love about cartooning is the combination of disciplines. I love drawing, but I also love words and the exercise of creating tightly edited pieces of text, taking the readers’ eye for a walk. There’s also the political knowledge one has to have and the passion for what goes on around you, and there’s the understanding of the conventions of comic strips. So cartooning is a fascinating mix of all of this. I certainly also enjoy readers’ reactions to the cartoons and the subsequent discussions in print and electronic media.
- What are your purpose when you draw ? Create awareness, changing mentality, behaviour ?
I believe in advocacy, so I like saying things strongly and sometimes controversially. In this way I actively take part in debates, although I think it’s unusual to find a cartoon that on its own changes behaviour. My cartoons are part of a wider discourse that may have some influence on what people do.
- Why did you come back to SA in 1991 ?
When I went to New York on a Fulbright Scholarship, South Africa was still suffering under apartheid. I had been involved in the liberation movement for six years and always intended to go home. While I was away, things were more momentous than I could have imagined. The African National Congress was unbanned and Mandela and other leaders were released. I then wanted even more to come back and take part in the changes that were happening.
- What did you learn from your stay overseas ? What is the perception of SA abroad ?
One thing that became clear to me while I was in America was that their political movement was incredibly diverse, but this diversity meant they didn’t seem to have much direction. On the other hand, we in South Africa had less diversity but more direction. By far the biggest goal was to overcome the apartheid regime, but this over-arching goal often prevented us, and I certainly include myself, from tackling many other issues. Things have changed enormously in the past fifteen years as we have become a more “normal” society. Things are in many ways more nuanced and complicated, and in some respects the single-minded directedness has been diluted. At the same time, the perception of South Africa abroad has changed hugely. We were a pariah state. I think the rest of the world takes less interest in South Africa now and we have to work out our own problems.
- How important do you consider your cartoons ? In other words, do you think having any influence on political behaviour/leader ?
It’s hard to say how much influence the cartoons have on political leaders. I know that they take note of them which presumably means that on occasion a cartoon could temper someone’s behaviour. I am being sued for a massive amount (the equivalent of $2 million which is twice as much as any cartoonist has previously been sued for) by South Africa’s former deputy-President Jacob Zuma, who wants to become our next President. I will not allow this to stand in the way of my being heavily critical of him. Some politicians really enjoy seeing themselves in cartoons and some don’t care how critical the cartoons are because they are so narcissistic that any publicity is good publicity. I draw the cartoons less for the politicians, and more for the public.
- Do you feel confident in SA freedom media for the future ? What is it the most important threat according to you ?
As a cartoonist I have had a fantastically free run over the past decade and a half and I see no reason why this should not continue. I have hardly ever been seriously censored by my editors. Usually if there’s any kind of problem, we work it out at the idea stage and sometimes the process of close scrutiny actually makes the cartoon stronger even if I have to leave out certain problematic words. The editors leave me to my own devices when it comes to the images I use. I think the print media generally has been very free. Of course, the massive defamation lawsuit by Jacob Zuma against me and other media people could change things, but somehow I doubt it, and if it does go all the way to the Constitutional Court, I am convinced the freedom of expression will trump his pathetically dented ego. The biggest threat to freedom of expression is in the electronic media, specifically the national broadcaster, where a Stalinist hack named Snuki Zikalala is head of news and is increasingly getting a stranglehold on what gets broadcast. He, and some others on the board of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, put the “national interest”, whatever the heck they think that is, ahead of freedom of expression.
- Your message to convince people to come to South Africa and visit Cape Town ?
South Africa is an exciting place to be and to work. We have more issues in a week than some other places have in months. Working out how to change things after hundreds of years of oppression is complex and conflicted. Bizarre things happen all the time. But I think we’ve done pretty well and although I criticise as hard as I can, I’m optimistic. Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world (although it’s still very racially divided) and definitely a great place to visit. South Africa is going to battle to get transport systems and security up to scratch for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, but I’m sure we’ll get it together and thousands of people will pitch up and have a great time.
Questions below are from Matric art project by Reto Müller 22 July 2005
What made you become a cartoon artist?
I became a cartoon fan around the age of four when I saw the covers of the Giles books my parents had lying around. They were beautifully drawn and inspired me to draw in a cartoony style. From the age of seven or eight I thought I would become a cartoonist but later lost confidence in the possibility of doing so and went to university to study architecture. Only after studying for a few years and being conscripted into the army did I decide at age 23 to actually become a cartoonist.
How did you discover your talent for drawing cartoons?
I naturally drew in quite a cartoony way but never studied art at school or university so you could say I was self-taught. Only when I was almost 30 did I get the chance to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York which helped me consolidate what I’d learnt and also learn a heck of a lot more besides.
Which cartoon artists are your favourites or main influences and did they influence your drawing style in any way?
My first influence was Giles. Then came Tintin and Peanuts. As a teenager I admired the political cartoons of David Marais in the Cape Times. In my twenties I was influenced by the English graphic cartoonists Steadman and Scarfe, and also stylistically by their equivalent Derek Bauer in South Africa. There was some influence from these styles in my early cartoons, but I moved to a more accessible style, being influenced in drawing and writing by Doonesbury, Oliphant, Steve Bell, Tom Toles and Mike Peters.
What was the first cartoon you ever drew?
As I mentioned earlier I was drawing in a cartoon style from very young. I’d say the first deliberate original cartoon that I drew and published was around the age of ten in a school publication. It was a schoolboy character who commented on the goings-on at the school.
In your opinion, what is the best cartoon you've ever drawn?
I can’t pick one. Perhaps I could pick the best five or six. The cartoon that receives the most attention is one of the best I’ve done. It’s the cartoon I did in 1997 after Cape Town lost its bid to host the 2004 Olympics.
Are there any cartoons that don't get published?
I quite often come up with ideas that don’t see the light of day, some because they would be grossly insensitive without enough positive result and many because they just don’t quite work. I don’t usually finish cartoons and then find that I can’t publish them. Luckily it’s only happened a few times after wrangles about legality with newspaper editors who don’t want to see the paper sued (I always fight for the cartoon under these circumstances and have only lost a few times), and then there’ve been a handful that editors have considered grossly offensive in the finished form (I fight even harder for these if I believe in the cartoon).
On average, how long does it take you to draw a cartoon?
There’s always a lot of time to conceptualise ideas before starting on a cartoon and this time is not easily quantifiable. Some days it’s quick and some days slow. Once I start, it varies between three hours (quick) and six hours (very slow), usually lots of research and detail involved.
Have you ever considered drawing cartoons on other subject matter?
I’m not completely sure what this question means. If it is whether or not I do cartoons other than political, the answer is yes simply because as an editorial cartoonist I cover things like sport, entertainment and things of general interest and these not all with a political angle. If the question is other than editorial cartoons the answer is seldom, I just don’t have the time but I have done some educational comics in years gone by and I do the odd gag cartoon which I’m sure I’ll publish at some stage.
Is there any topic or person that you are particularly glad to see appear in the news? Which or who is it?
My answer to this is a bit strange in that I sometimes want to see news about things that I’m not happy with. The reason being that I want them further highlighted in the public mind so that I can get a better shot at saying what I want to say. The best example of this is HIV/Aids. Obviously I want the situation to improve but until it does, it’s good to see in the press aspects of the situation that I want to attack. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is one of my favourite targets and President Mbeki himself, because he appears to be an AIDS dissident is another on target on this issue.
When and where do you get your best ideas?
There’s no set time or place. I do work hard sitting at my board in my studio but sometimes I get it while I’m at the gym or having a shower or in front of the TV.
Which medium do you use to draw your cartoons?
I am a traditionalist when it comes to my materials and methods. I love flexible dipping pens and India ink drawn on Bristol board.
Submitted to Struik Publishers (Zebra Press) and the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust for the publication 'ALL THAT I AM' (a compilation of letters) compiled by Leyla Haidarian 4 October 2004
Please, kindly send us a sentence, a paragraph, or much more, paying tribute to a person or persons who made a difference in your life. Tell us about a parent, a friend, a mentor, a religious person or other figure who touched you or propelled you to the being today, an extraordinary South African.
In the segregated days of the late 1960s I was lucky enough to have one primary school teacher whose enlightened attitude transcended the unimaginative repression that was apartheid education. His name is Alan Kenyon. Against the grain of mediocrity and corporal punishment that was the norm, he fostered an holistic approach to education, encouraging those weird and wonderful talents that are present in any classroom but were in those days suppressed into conformity. Alone amongst the staff, he saw that my interest in cartooning wasn’t just a distraction from more serious things. In the school newspaper that he started, I was editor and had my first regular cartoon gig, where a character called “Preppie” commented on the goings-on at the school. Under his mentorship I read both serious literature and comic doggerel. He managed to stimulate passion in things artistic and scientific. I attribute to him my first understanding of lateral thinking. At a time when politics was forbidden in the classroom he was clearly a political progressive, always promoting tolerance and humanity. He helped me open my mind and for that I am deeply grateful.
Answers for Louise Christensen for Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Media Project (on guidance for cartoonists) in Windhoek 26 August 2005
1. Why do you think that editorial cartoons are an important asset to the media?
Vast amounts of media swamp us daily. An editorial cartoon is a unique form of communication often able in a single panel to encapsulate the meaning of a complex issue or story, or to clarify an issue by making a new and startling connection between two seemingly unrelated things. Humour in various forms is the most common and useful tool for making cartoon comments. The licence generally accorded to a cartoonist to pillory important people and institutions is something I value enormously and I feel is an asset to society. Shooting sacred cows and knocking the powerful off their pedestals if they get too high and mighty is fun but it’s also one of society’s pressure valves. The cartoonist functions very much along the lines of the mediaeval court jester who was allowed to say things about the king that nobody else could say (of course some stand-up comedians and other satirists are also allowed into this territory). The value of this kind of humorous but incisive talking point is accentuated at times when the authorities are oppressive and try to ban cartoons form appearing or to persecute cartoonists.
2. What kinds of "ethical" codes do you think should be set for editorial cartoonists?
It’s the first time I’ve been asked this particular question and I’ve had to think hard in answering it. I know of no “ethical codes” which are enforced in South Africa, nor am I aware of anything like this in free democratic societies. Whose ethics and what kind of codes? I would be very unhappy working under some sort of code which would no doubt be imposed by people who don’t necessarily share my own values. On top of this is the problem that cartoons can be interpreted in many different ways and although the cartoonist is usually trying to be as clear as possible, people who are readily offended and in many instances waiting to be offended can misinterpret and misconstrue things that would be clear to the majority of readers. In some instances I’d go so far as saying that I don’t care if something is offensive to a large number of people as long as the message that I intend is clear. Cartoonists work with hyperbole. A good example of something that is almost inherently offensive but has often been used in cartoons is the swastika symbol. It can be used to represent Nazism, fascism and various sorts of racism and ideologies of racial superiority. But using a symbol like this in cartoons is something one has to do with care because of the likelihood of misinterpretation. We cartoonists are dealing in the hypothetical, using exaggerated metaphors to say something about our experience of daily reality. I would not like to have somebody else’s code imposed on me, saying what is ok and what is not ok. That’s something that I’ve spent years trying to figure out for myself. I am though, open to debating these issues with editors and my peers.