How can editorial cartoons better connect the dots between the social determinants of injustice and not just the individuals who profit from it?

This year, 2017, must be the best of times and the worst of times to be a cartoonist because we live in very strange and unprecedented times in South Africa and the world. To call these days of our lives “interesting” would be an understatement.

Ours is a time of inversions and injustice.

Ours is a time where figures we would usually consider pantomime caricatures have become the norm. It is a time of larger than life idiots like Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un or Jacob Zuma. The tragedy is that these gun-toting cowboys have our lives in their hands.

Ours is a time where the extreme has become ordinary and ordinary is more and more extreme.

Ours is a time when government ministers of a once-upon-time liberation party dress in Gucci suits, a new one for every day, while the children whose school-money they hoard, drown or hang in school toilets.

At the very moment when many would say we celebrate our greatest freedom under law ours has transformed into a time of endemic social injustice.

Ours is a time of tom-foolery, where criminal elites with one hand in business and the other over government are happy for we the people to live under the illusion that we live under the rule of law; they are content that we wallow in soft ideas like “equality”,”dignity” and human rights while they plunder and rape.

In such an irreverent world what room does this leave for cartoonly irreverence? In such a contorted, contradictory, exaggerated world what room does this leave you, the cartoonist, the court jester whose job is to lampoon? It would seem to me that your masters have stolen your clothes!

Are cartoonists becoming extinct like the newspapers they used to draw for? Perhaps that‘s the question you should be asking yourselves.

Where do you fit in?

Before being invited to speak at this conference I had never really thought about the role of editorial cartoonists in social justice. Seeing a cartoon is as familiar as having cornflakes for breakfast. But as I began to trawl my memory and then the internet I was surprised to discover how luminous a part political cartooning occupies in the protection and advancement of democracy. I knew writers face persecution (I am a board member of PEN SA) but I was taken aback to discover that in some parts of the world cartoonists too are persecuted; there is even a network for the international defence of cartoonists.

Cartoonists become dangerous to politicians when their characterisations become larger than life.

The work of Zapiro is an obvious example. Zapiro’s attaching a shower head to Jacob Zuma has become iconic.

But Zapiro is far from unique. Suddenly I remembered various British cartoonists I had encountered in my youth.

Like Steve Bell whose depiction of British Prime Minister John Major with elongated lips and always with a pair of over-sized underpants outside his trousers, making him into a permanent buffoon!

Or Alan Hardman, whose drawings of a hawk-like Margaret Thatcher, were always a feature of the weekly socialist newspaper the Militant.

From Zapiro and others it would seem to me that the traditional formula for drawing a successful editorial cartoon is to join the dots so as to help people make a connection, to recognise an injustice that in ordinary life lies just under the surface. This can be done by exaggeration, caricature, or grotesque, irreverence.

But my question to cartoonists is the same one I recently put to journalists at the Daily Maverick Gathering; as inhabitants in a cartoon-century, a time of extremes, how do we make people outraged or awake? How can editorial cartoons better connect the dots between the social determinants of injustice and not just the individuals that profit from it?

For example, how would you connect the death of little Michael Komape to state capture, or the epidemic of cerebral palsy in children to the mismanagement of obstetrics in the health department that is linked to shortage of professional nurses?

The closest I came to seeing these dots joined was in the work of the great British cartoonist Gerald Scarf in the animation produced for his collaboration with Pink Floyd in their film The Wall.

In South Africa the great black cartoonist Nanda Soobben does it through his cartoons. Soobben started lampooning politicians under apartheid. Today, among many distinctions he is the founder of an arts school that aims to attract students from disadvantaged communitiesthus trying to keep alive and transform the satirical tradition in social justice cartoonery. But in KZN, a province governed by an ANC Mafia which he describes as “the IFP on steroids”, he is struggling to find mainsteam papers that will carry his work and, he says, his school is being victimised.

In a similar fashion, Zapiro’s dark cartoons on Aids denialism and Thabo Mbeki form a pictorial history, a backdrop to Aids denialism.

More recently, one thinks of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and their fearless – perhaps provocative – mockery of all forms of religious extremism, even at the cost of offending their supporters.

Social justice requires satire. We need political cartoonists.

Cartoonism allows license to take facts and imagine and where necessary to exaggerate them to their end-point. It is often the art of prescience. It is the exact opposite of the ethics of ordinary journalism. In this sense the two are necessary hand-maidens. Cartoonists, like investigative journalists, are under threat from censorious media houses with masters who come from the side of evil. Cartoonists, like journalists, are part of a profession their business owners think we can no longer afford.

Cartoonists, like journalists, should not be propagandists for anyone – but the line between passivity and passion is a fine one.

It’s your job to find that line! I think that all great art, be it literature, painting or music, inclines towards social justice. And in a time of the unconscionable cartoonists must help build a public conscience.

This is an edited version of a speech Mark Heywood delivered to the opening of the Cartoonists Convention, Cape Town, 9 September, 2017 and originally appeared in the Daily Maverick 22 September 2017.

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