Ah, greasy, beak-nosed men with unsavoury, five-o-clock shadows darkening swarthy jawlines, proffering gifts and currying favours. Good to see that the illustrious history that connects the stereotyping of Jewish people and Indians (particularly Indians in Africa) is continuing, at the hands of cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro. Shapiro’s work is beyond well-known in South Africa and abroad; he’s beloved for drawing Mandela as a figure of humility and humour large enough to love the caricatures Shapiro drew of him. Shapiro is also famous for lambasting political leaders who capitalised on Mandela’s (and the ANC’s former) glory to garner private fortunes, via under-cover deals. Enter Ajay, Atol and Rajesh Gupta, who journeyed to South Africa from Saharanpur, India during the 1990s to explore possible business opportunities in the country. And they found plenty of business with members of the ANC.
Among the rumours swirling around the Guptas: that they brokered a deal that benefits them and Duduzane Zuma (the son of Jacob Zuma), becoming co-shareholders in a deal with China Railway Construction Corporation, and another “R9-billion empowerment deal” with Indian-Swiss megacorporation ArcelorMittal. (The Gupta family has set up a WordPress blog to establish the facts and address what they call “this ‘perception-mongering'” by the South African media here.) Given all this, it’s no wonder that the Three Brothers Gupta would become Zapiro subjects.
However, it’s the direction that the satirist’s pen took, when depicting Ajay, Atol and Rajesh’s features, to which we want to draw attention; whether that direction was taken inadvertently or not, the similarities between how Jewish people were/are depicted in anti-Semitic cartoons and Zapiro’s depiction of the Guptas are hard to ignore. The history of stereotyping Indians as the ‘Jews’ of East and Southern Africa is a long one. It’s a trope that is reflected in Drum writing in the 1950s and earlier, as well as in the writing of the brothers Naipaul. In North of South, Shiva Naipaul wrote, after visiting East Africa in the 1970s, “the Asian is the eternal ‘other'” in Africa (readers: please feel free to supply us with details from V.S. and Shiva Naipaul). Making this odd linkage actually goes back as far as the 19th century, when missionaries like David Livingstone et al conveniently saw ‘Indians’ and ‘Arabs’ as exploitative forces preying on naive-yet-untrusting natives, thereby necessitating white intervention.
Paul Theroux, the travel writer, is also famous for detailed vignettes in which the persecution of Indians in East Africa is paralleled to the stereotyping (and eventual persecution) of Jews in Europe, even though he doesn’t explicitly say so (read this blog entry for a blow-by-blow comparison). In Dark Star Safari, there are multiple stories about Indians being spoken of in a denigrating manner, highlighting their propensity to be good shopkeepers who live a “rather secluded life–all numbers and money and goods on shelves.” Others are more crazy-ugly, such as a gem recounted by a man named Karsten on a dugout canoe ride, concerning the reason why Indians are so rich: they catch the biggest fish on the mighty Zambezi by using the chopped up parts of the heart of young Zambian maidens to bait their fishing lines, luring fish with diamonds in them. Each of Theroux’s narratives involving Indians have linkages to older myths about blood-libels, told about the Jews of Europe.
The comparisons have had enough impact that Asians in Africa sometimes refer to themselves as a group who experience the same dilemmas as German-Jewish people did, circa 1930s (see the National Museums of Kenya ethnographer, Sultan H. Somjee’s comments here). When I first read Theroux’s comparisons as a grad student, I thought, “Oh, right. That makes a sort of racist sense, masquerading as a sympathetic gesture of solidarity,” and left it at that. For the uninitiated, it may seem like a bit of leap between Zapiro’s Guptas and the figure of the Jew (men, ususally) in anti-Semitic cartoons. If you have doubts about the resonances to which I’m referring, have a look at some of these.
First, a woodcut from Pierre Boaistuau’s Histoires Prodigieuses (above). Dated around 1569, depicting a Jewish man poisoning a well into which the Devil is urinating. The image here isn’t clear enough to show the features, but you may get the drift.
Second, cartoons from the Nazi era certainly make the linkages between Shapiro’s Guptas and theirs clear: see here (Polish cartoon depicting Jewish people as fat/well off while blaming the poor for their poverty), and the one left, promoting the Nazi claim that the Jews were behind World War II, having orchestrated it to destroy Nazi Germany (The caption: “One eats the other and the Jew devours them all…”). Source: Lustige Blätter, a weekly German humor magazine; issue #29/1943.
Then there are more modern versions of this type of depiction of Jewish people, propelled by the state of Israel’s unconscionable actions against the Palestinians:
And finally some food to complicate your thoughts: in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming adaption of F. Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Bollywood patriarch Amitabh Bachchan (below) is set to play the Jewish character of Meyer Wolfsheim, whom Fitzgerald portrayed as a money-grubbing, crude, corrupt, hairy man with a pronounced Yiddish accent who continually insinuates himself into acceptable society via his business “goneggtions”:
We’re no apologists for the underhanded tactics of industrialists like the Guptas – and by all means, Zapiro, poke fun, expose, critique. But if you want to create Golliwog referenced-drawings when you critique black leaders or as stand-ins for black people (even as you mean to critique the very problem of such residual views in racist societies — a methodology of social critique employed by Anton Kannemeyer’s camp of cartooning), or keep getting endless laughs with, say, a president-with-a-shower-head, nose broader than a table top, or outlandishly pouty lips, I hope there’s space for us to point out that the line between caricaturing a public figure’s specific traits and a tendency towards relying on racist tropes might have been blurred.
* Thanks to Dan Magaziner for the reminder on Livingstone and the Naipauls’ references to the trope.