12/04/2017 13:14 SAST | Updated 13/04/2017 08:40 SAST

It's Time We Accept Zapiro Has Lost Interest In Being Accountable

Instead of seriously engaging with his critics, Jonathan Shapiro instead hides behind straw man arguments and meaningless promises.

Gallo Images / The Times / Daniel Born
The reflection of Jonathan Shapiro, aka cartoonist Zapiro, speaks at a conference of African journalists at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa on 9 March 2011.

As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly - Proverbs 26:11

Cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) has returned to his rape cartoon for a fourth time. The details are much the same, except this time he's inserted a Gupta into it.

He defended the cartoon in the Daily Maverick on Tuesday, depicting Jacob Zuma zipping up his pants while one of the Gupta brothers prepares to rape a woman draped in the South African flag.

"I really didn't think I'd actually have to revisit the theme at all. It's not as if I want to draw this sort of thing," he said.

The message remains exactly the same as always. So does the criticism of it.

He cannot claim to be unaware of the effects that his use of this metaphor has. Every time he uses it, he is lectured on the power of language, and his responsibility as a public interlocutor. It is time that we accept that he has lost all interest in being accountable for his work to anyone but himself.

Read: Five Zapiro Caroons That Crossed The Line

As a writer, it is my job to understand that words have meaning. It is even more important to understand effect –- what meaning I wish to convey, how I choose to deploy this message, and what the reaction might be. I make trade-offs every day when I write. (Sometimes, my subeditors make these choices for me.) How do I pass along a certain message in the most effective way possible? This includes understanding how my audience will receive a message. If a certain word may convey a meaning which is unintentionally harmful, then I choose not to use it. I must consider always if it's worth it. Or not. This is my basic responsibility to my readers*. And I daresay, a point of professional pride.

As a cartoonist, Zapiro has the same responsibility. He must consider the effects of his imagery, both good and bad. He must weigh these against each other, and must make a decision. Assuming that he takes this responsibility seriously, the criticism of the imagery must weigh upon him, and it must affect his decision. But apparently it does not. Why not?

I do wonder why the Daily Maverick published it at all. What new information does it impart? Who amongst us is such a dullard (and evidently poorly-read) that it was necessary to employ this poisonous metaphor for the fourth time? Who did not get the message the first time? Who needs to be told in the most graphic way possible that President Jacob Zuma and his cronies are doing grave damage to the democratic project? What worth does this cartoon have anymore, as an argument? A toddler smears itself from head to toe in its own faeces, and we are expected to applaud, like a profound point has been made. Mate, it's a shit-covered baby.

At this point, Zapiro is simply choosing to insult and offend because he can. Not because he needs to. This is childish, and stupid.

Some people have tried to argue that the criticism means that people are more offended by imagery than what prompted it. Well, this is the level of intellectual defence that Zapiro enjoys -– people need to assume that his critics are so dumb that they are incapable of more than one thought at a time. This is instructive in and of itself, I think.

He should have the spine to stand up in the public square and defend himself against his accusers. He should tell all the people that he repeatedly re-traumatises that their pain means nothing to him. That he doesn't care.

You may argue that this is well and good. But then he should have the spine to stand up in the public square and defend himself against his accusers. He should tell all the people that he repeatedly re-traumatises that their pain means nothing to him. That he doesn't care. That his right to draw whatever he likes trumps all other considerations. I could respect such a stance. (I don't mean that I would approve of it. I have great respect for a wounded hippo (to employ Teju Cole's metaphor) but it doesn't mean I'd greet it with open arms and a smile if one charged at me...) Zapiro chooses instead to deflect, and he chooses to hide.

When asked this time around why he'd done this, he implied that his critics were on the Zuma/Gupta side. He said, "I would also challenge people to look at the cartoon and see who they empathise with. Do they empathise with any of the perpetrators holding the metaphorical person down, that is South Africa, or do they empathise with the metaphorical person? There's nothing in the drawing that enjoys or revels in the idea of rape or gang rape."

In 2016, The Times published a cartoon depicting National Prosecuting Authority boss Shaun Abrahams as a monkey. A debate erupted around what was – again – the deployment of an unnecessarily harmful metaphor, intended for an audience just emerging from centuries of racial oppression and all the attendant harm. At the time I worked for the Mail & Guardian, which also employed Zapiro, and I had a behind-the-scenes view of the attempts made by then editor-in-chief Verashni Pillay (we're both at Huffington Post now) to engage him in a discussion about this. She will back me on this point: having initially agreed to to an open and public debate about the issue, he suddenly backed out and refused to account. An event had been planned and everything but he would not budge. He filed a cartoon that promised he was listening. He wasn't. He didn't last long at the M&G after that.

This has been Zapiro's self-defence tactic for a long time now. He assures us that he's listening, that he critiques his work before he send it to newsrooms, that he seeks the opinions of those his work might impact. We never have any evidence that this is true. We simply have to take him at his word. We simply have to believe that yes, he consults with black women and rape survivors before he mines their painful experiences for his drawings. (I read an amazing article the other day. Did you know that English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson has black friends? True story.) The opinions of the rape survivors that have publicly condemned him? The women who have asked him not to weaponise the pain inflicted on their bodies? They don't count for anything.

Zapiro has chosen to be accountable to nobody but himself. The only opinion that matters is his own. The only influence he'll accept is that which does not puncture his ego. There is nothing brave about his stance. It is insulting, stupid, and deeply cowardly. What worth is such a man's work?

*Notice that this has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Zapiro's freedom of speech is not under question. I hope it remains this way. I trust that nobody who wields power will feel the need to exercise it against him. This is what freedom of speech means. It takes a tremendous amount of onanistic self regard to believe that "freedom of speech" is a shield that inoculates all opinion from criticism, or indeed, consequences.