‘I feel angst and self-doubt’ – Zapiro chats about his glittering career and why it’s not easy being a cartoonist
Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro, is a brilliant cartoonist but he’s often racked by self-doubt, writes Claire Keeton for the Sunday Times
Life as South Africa’s most celebrated and controversial political cartoonist isn’t all deadlines and stress, even though Zapiro’s anxiety levels after years in the game seem similar to stand-up comedians and pilots.
One of the highlights for Jonathan Shapiro, known as Zapiro, came out of the blue when he got a call on Christmas Day in 2001.
It was the agent of jazz singer and actor Harry Belafonte. Belafonte said he would like to meet Shapiro. A Belafonte fan, Shapiro said that it would be fantastic.
“He walked through the gate in a huge fur coat in the middle of summer and gave me a massive bear hug, then we sat in my studio and started talking,” Shapiro remembers.
“He said to me: ‘I have a confession to make. I was expecting a black man. God has a sense of humour.’”
Belafonte, who had been attending a world conference against racism in Durban and had seen Shapiro’s cartoons, assumed the cartoonist was a black South African from the way he “tapped into” society.
Shapiro’s progressive upbringing and experiences as an activist with the United Democratic Front in the 1980s – we were together in the South African Youth Congress and on the UDF coordinating committee in Cape Town – sharpened his commitment to fight institutionalised racism and oppression.
And his sense of outrage at injustice has not diminished.
Shapiro is brilliant but not infallible. He’s a battle-weary warrior for the constitution who has on rare occasions fallen out of step with the public whose rights he defends.
“I feel angst and self-doubt. I’m second-guessing myself all the time. I wonder if I’m becoming more reactionary. Have I changed, or has the politics changed? It’s my sense that it’s the politics I’m trying to interrogate.”
While Nelson Mandela praised his creations as “accurate and very exciting”, President Jacob Zuma, with his Zapiro-anointed showerhead, is not a fan.
Zuma has sued him twice, for the maiden showerhead cartoon in 2006 and for the controversial Lady Justice cartoon, which appeared in 2008. Both cases were dropped.
“That [Lady Justice] cartoon has a life of its own. It was selected as one of the 15 cartoons that changed the world, at number 15, along with cartoons by heavy-hitters from around the world, and by the American student cartooning world,” he said.
The launch of Shapiro’s 21st book, Dead President Walking, once again exposes the ways in which Zuma is failing South Africa’s democracy. It also provides an incisive and uncensored view on major political developments in the past year.
Not surprisingly, former public protector Thuli Madonsela endorses the collection on the back of the book with the comment:
I don’t always agree with Zapiro’s cartoons, but his wit, brilliance and relevance can’t be ignored.
It’s not easy being a cartoonist, and Shapiro spends hours conceptualising his works before putting pen to paper.
The process usually kicks off after too little sleep and too much coffee, with him “taking his news intravenously”, as a friend put it when he saw Shapiro at dawn with a radio the size of a lighter glued to his ear.
“My Sony radio is my lifeline,” says Shapiro, who listens to news for hours over breakfast, during the school run and throughout the day.
By early afternoon he hopes to have a rough drawing for the next day, but that can be a “little euphemistic”, he admits.
For about a decade he produced six editorial cartoons a week, taking off only Saturday afternoons and evenings, but he now does only four a week.
This allows him more time to do talks and walk trails with his family, and ahead of the Cape Town Cycle Tour he gets in last-minute training for the race he has ridden nine times.
Shapiro started his career as an editorial cartoonist in 1987 for the alternative newspaper South before taking up a Fulbright scholarship to study media arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
“In South Africa we had unity and they had diversity, issues I hadn’t even thought of,” he says of his exposure to social activism there.
Another defining moment of his life in New York was marrying Karina Turok, his wife of 28 years with whom he has a son of 21 and a daughter of 16.
When the couple had been together for four years they decided to leave to study in the United States, but his mother asked him to wait and have a wedding at home.
He assured her they would, but after a month of facing visa complications, they were married in the city hall in Harlem, after which they went to the top of the World Trade Center to celebrate.
One of their favourite activities then was playing ultimate frisbee in Central Park, taking part in one of the world’s long-running games (where I joined them while studying there).
“We got addicted, and my wife and I like to believe we were among the first who brought the game here and played it for years,” said Shapiro, who played it on Camps Bay beach.
When he returned to South Africa, he had a change of pace and for three years he drew educational comics on the themes of HIV/Aids awareness and preventing child abuse.
Even though he joined the ANC, he became more of an observer than activist and he drew the main voter education poster in 1994.
In the same year he was invited to draw for the Mail & Guardian.
In 1998 he started contributing to the Sunday Times, which has also proved an enduring relationship, and in 2009 he became regular cartoonist in The Times.
He also contributed to a satirical puppet show for TV and has since sculpted caricatured figurines of politicians.
Shapiro has won a host of international awards. This year he won the annual EWK-Prize by the EWK-Society, based in Norrköping, Sweden.
He has exhibited all over the world, from the US and Australia to Cameroon and Germany.
Through his cartooning he has met celebrities and artists he admires, attending the World Economic Forum as part of a group of creatives.
“I have come in contact with fascinating people, people who are my heroes like Joan Armatrading, Youssou N’dour, Peter Gabriel, Richard Gere and Nadine Gordimer,” Shapiro says. “I had to pinch myself.”
In the post-Trump-as-president world he’s not the only one pinching himself, but in South Africa at least we have Zapiro’s unique take on out-of-control presidents to keep us alert.