In today’s India, as in many other places, power and money define the context. Those who enjoy social and economic privileges, and can summon powerful political influence, play by different rules. Vast quantities of unregulated capital let loose by the neoliberal economy slosh around to twist the machinery of laws and administration. An army of fixers and middlemen operate at every level to distort and corrupt the everyday experience of democracy, turning it into “a feast of vultures”.
I have always been a great fan of the cartoonist, Zapiro. He is intelligent, moral and brave – something one cannot say about too many people in South Africa. I am also not easily shocked and believe politicians generally deserve to be ridiculed and mocked. It is when people – especially politicians – start thinking they are beyond mocking and take themselves too seriously that trouble usually starts.
But when I saw his cartoon in the Sunday Times yesterday, I found myself wondering whether Zapiro had not gone too far and had perhaps not done something immoral and ethically deeply problematic.
Of course I agree with Zapiro that some of those ANC leaders who have been championing Zuma’s cause, have acted in a scandalous and despicable manner. I also agree that Zuma – through his silence – has aided and abetted some in the ANC in their very dangerous and immoral behaviour.
Perhaps one could still argue that a cartoonist may use the metaphor of rape in his cartoons to address a situation that he sees as dangerous and immoral – although I am not a woman and have never been raped, so maybe I am not the best one to judge this point. The metaphor of rape is definitely a powerful one – especially in a country like South Africa where so many woman have been and continue to be raped.
But I do wonder whether by using the metaphor of rape, Zapiro is not cheapening the horror of rape and – given our deeply patriarchal and sexist society – is not helping to desensitize us to this scourge. In a society where many men still see woman as something to be owned, I worry that this kind of cartoon might somehow send a signal to some men that rape is not such a bad thing.
In this cartoon Zapiro uses rape as a metaphor, of course, and he is using the horror that most ordinary decent people have of rape to make a very powerful point about the immorality of Zuma and his backers. But human beings are strange creatures – do we not become desensitized to a horror if we are exposed to it for long enough?
And what about the horrid sexists who might also be fans of Jacob Zuma? Is there not a danger that they will leer over this cartoon and somehow find it exciting or funny?
Lastly, the cartoon will be read in the context of Mr Zuma’s rape trial. Every single person who sees it will remember that Zuma was charged with rape and will make some connection between that charge and this cartoon.
But Zuma was acquitted in his rape trial. Although he said some very sexists and stupid things during his trial and although his supporters behaved appallingly outside the court, we have to respect the fact that he was acquitted because it shows our respect for the judiciary which, Zapiro suggests, Zuma’s supporters do not always show.
By depicting Zuma as a rapist – even in metaphoric terms – is Zapiro not disrespecting the decision by the court and planting the thought in our heads that maybe Zuma is a rapist after all? Is Zapiro in that way not undermining respect for the very judiciary he is purportedly defending by suggesting subliminally that Zuma should have been convicted?
I do not think there are easy answers to these questions. Maybe I am being prudish or overtly sensitive? I remain in two minds myself.
But perhaps we all have a duty when we engage in the public discourse to do so in a way that is not going to fan the flames of sexism, hate and violence. Maybe, just maybe, Zapiro overstepped the boundary in this case.BACK TO TOP