Cartoonist Andy Mason recently published a history of the art form in South Africa. What’s So Funny? Under the skin of South African Cartooning is the only book of its kind that traces the origins and development of cartooning in South Africa, and its political place in the socio-political context.  We send him some questions.

Where did the idea for a history of cartooning come from?

Well it actually rose out of my masters’ research that I did at the University of Kwazulu-Natal about 10 years ago. As cartoonist myself, I was interested in looking at the impact that cartooning had had on the South African struggle — whether in fact we could say that cartooning and comics had had any impact at all on the transition to democracy. I came to the conclusion that it had, albeit a modest one. And then from there I became more and more interested in particular in looking at the icons and stereotypes that cartoonists used in the South African context to describe the different actors in the political scenario.

I tried to define when South African cartooning started, I started to do research through the 50s and the liberal cartooning of the mid-century period, and then I went back to look at the antecedents to that, and eventually I went all the way back to a cartoon which was published in 1819 by George Cruikshank who was a leading London caricaturist of the day. I called it the Cruikshank’s cannibal cartoon. It shows the white settlers being devoured by these cannibal figures – these huge, hulking monstrous figures. And it kind of – for me that became an iconic cartoon, a prototypical South African cartoon.

The same time as I was doing that historical research the whole pace of political change in SA developed in the post-apartheid period – and moved from what I call the euphoric national consensus of the transition to a period which I call the discourse of disillusionment. And the cartoonist that I particularly focused on with regard to that was Zapiro. While I was writing the book, I became good friends with him. And I started to become involved in the actual unfolding story of this epic confrontation between the cartoonist and the political figure in South Africa–between Zapiro and Jacob Zuma.

And so that particular conflict or confrontation/contest seemed to me to be a contest between two enormously powerful forces which in South Africa had assumed a unique form. And that was kind of symbolized by this conflict between the politician and the artist or the cartoonist. Which is essentially an embodiment of the eternal conflict between the pen and the sword.

One of the illustrations you have is a particular drawing of Zapiro’s which you say displays a British style of cartooning. Is there a South African style that’s identifiable and different from any other style?

There is an evolving South African cartooning style. In my book when I talk about cartooning I talk about three main types of categories of cartooning. One is political cartooning, the other is the kind of educational campaign cartooning which was very influential in the pre-1994 period. And the third is underground cartooning, of which we have a very strong tradition in SA. There are different styles in the different sectors. Since the 90s the underground style of South African cartooning was hugely influenced by the Bitterkomix movement and in the political cartooning sector the cartooning style was hugely influenced by Zapiro. In fact all the cartoonists that came after Zapiro imitated him in one way or another.

I think that there is a style of SA cartooning. It’s not so much a particular visual style. Some are very influenced by the American traditions, others more by the British and European traditions. If there is a South African style of cartooning its more to do with other less visual aspects, such as a courageous engagement with the political environment. Our cartooning has become internationally known for its enormous courage and its ability to take political leaders to task in a way that would be considered very extreme in some countries, for example the USA.

What the underground cartoonists brought to political cartooning – though it didn’t start as a political movement – was a very liberated way of looking at the world, a strong left wing critical theory, and also a very scatological rude, aggressive kind of approach. They use a lot of sexual imagery and it was very robust.

If you look at the work of some of the up-and-coming new cartoonists, particularly the black cartoonists, you’ll see that robustness of the way in which they depict the political scenario and in which they depict political leaders is very groundbreaking and unique to SA. And it really does define SA cartooning.

Can you say a bit more about the Bitterkomix movement?

These were Afrikaans fine artists from Stellenbosch University. They were extremely radical. They were influenced by the underground press. They were very pornographic. They were also operating from within the Afrikaans establishment. They produced their comics in Afrikaans and critiqued their own society and looked at the psychosexual aspects of it. They drew parallels between perverse forms of sexual repression within the home and family, and the political scenario. They started to mount a very damning critique of patriarchy and the patriarchal system which lay behind Apartheid, which was basically Afrikaner nationalism.

They had a free ride for a while because there was very little censorship in those years. It was a kind of anything goes environment in which not only cartoonists but visual artists, musicians, stand up comedians — lots of people exploited that political environment.

Then when the euphoric period started to dissipate after Mandela left power and the failures of the Mbeki administration started to become apparent, cartoonists started to critique the new political establishment, which was predominantly black. But unfortunately what had happened was that the racial demographic change within the South African cartooning community hadn’t kept pace with the democratic changes in the rest of the country. So most of the cartoonists were still white, and the targets of their cartooning were black and so you started to get allegations of racism and those particularly revolved around the depiction of black people, particularly black politicians.

I saw there was a very challenging problematic there because cartoonists by the very nature of what they do, they work with stereotypes. They exaggerate everything. The way people look, facial stereotypes. They laid themselves open to a kind of a critique around racial issues. Interestingly that critique, even though it has been voiced by some very prominent public commentators, hasn’t really got a lot of traction. And the reason is that in South Africa there is a very robust discourse that goes on. There’s an enormous amount of name-calling, an enormous amount of political insult. Political insult is actually the modus operandi of the South African political establishment. For example, Helen Zille and Julius Malema are very unrestrained in their use of all kinds of epithets to describe each other, and they’re always insulting each other. So the political behaviour of people in positions of authority provides fantastic material for South African cartoonists.

Are you seeing more black cartoonists emerging now? Looking at your book, the faces and names are predominantly white, until quite recently

The first black cartoonists emerged in the alternative publications of the late apartheid period. Until the late 1970s you didn’t have any black cartoonists to speak of in the South African press. Then as new opportunities arose in the newspapers you started to get new cartoonists emerging. There are a couple of important ones. There’s Brandan Reynolds who’s at Business Day. He grew up in the Cape Flats. He’s a very sophisticated cartoonist who is influenced by the American scene. He has been very critical of Mbeki, very critical of Zuma. He shows politicians as pigs rooting in the trough for example, and all that sort of stuff.

You have Sifiso Yalo who is at the Sowetan, probably the most prominent black cartoonist in that milieu. You have Wilson Mgobhozi who took over from Zapiro at The Star and is syndicated throughout the Independent newspaper group. You have a couple of other lesser figures – Bethuel Mangena at Sunday World and a couple of others like that. Numerically they are not very many and the demographic is still completely skewed, but because of syndication these guys get a lot of exposure. Just in terms of publication I think we have a strong presence of significant black cartoonists in South Africa, but it’s nowhere near where we want to go. It’s probably a generational thing. Cartoonists are very tenacious in holding on to their positions. A cartoonist like Fred Mouton who started working for Die Burger during the height of apartheid — I think he started in 1974 — he’s still at Die Burger today.

What do you make of claims that South Africans are not ready for satire (made mainly by broadcasters reluctant to air satirical shows such as ZA News). The history of cartoons would suggest that that’s nonsense.

I don’t believe that for a moment. If you just look at the field of stand-up comedy — a field of satire where the number of South African black comics has increased exponentially in the past ten years – there are so many brilliant black stand up comedians now. Perhaps because it’s a theatrical discipline it has outstripped cartooning, which is in a sense a lonely, arduous field of activity. But it’s only a matter of time. I also think that the media themselves are to blame for not being more proactive in providing the opportunities that should be provided. But the South African satirical tradition is extremely strong. It started off with challenging the British, with Daniel Boonzaier slagging off Smuts and Botha in the early years of the last century. It went through the liberal cartoonists slagging off the Nationalist government. It intensified during the 80s in the oppositional papers of the alternative press and it blossomed in the 90s with the new South African democracy. And it’s on a roll, it’s not going to be stopped. The efforts being made by the establishment to contain that space – which I call the Jester’s space — are not that successful and a tradition has been established which is going to be very difficult to combat. I think satire in South Africa is definitely here to stay.