Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

'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


Dead President WalkingLife 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.”

‘I feel angst and self-doubt’ – Zapiro chats about his glittering career and why it’s not easy being a cartoonist

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.

Madiba Planet

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.

Zapiro - freestyle cartooning!

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.

‘I feel angst and self-doubt’ – Zapiro chats about his glittering career and why it’s not easy being a cartoonist

Book details

Jay McInerney: darkness falls over South Africa

For a hip New Yorker, Jay McInerney has a surprisingly red-neck view of our  beloved country.  McInerney comes to South Africa next week to promote his latest book, Bright, Precious Days, in which we get a bit part. One of its characters, Luke McGavock, acquires a wine farm and a game farm in South Africa as part of a private equity deal.   Says Luke: “I loved the idea of Africa. And I loved the reality too. Its primal, cradle-of-life, origin-of-the-species aliveness.  The smells, not just the fertile dung smell of the veldt; even the wood smoke, seared meat and raw sewage smell of the townships.”

But it soon all turns to shit.

“…late night farm invasions had become increasingly common to the north, armed gangs breaking in and murdering white families, with the tacit approval of the ANC, which advocated the redistribution of land and sent out periodic calls for ‘colonialists’ to abandon their farms. Rape, torture and mutilation were common features of these attacks, which usually began with the intruders cutting phone and power lines…”   Really?

Luke is portrayed as “a good man, a generous soul”, who builds clinics and schools in the townships. But the natives don’t deserve him.

He decides to pack it in in South Africa after being badly injured in a car accident. “I was in the car alone, coming home from Cape Town one night. I got hit by a van that crossed the line into my lane. The driver drunk, of course. He died, along with his passenger. Not my fault at all apparently….. that didn’t keep it from getting ugly. White survivor, two dead black men.” Really?

In McInerney’s version of it, South Africa has just two sides: primal idyll for jaded sophisticates or savage and lawless jungle.

His writing purports to authenticity with much real-life detail: the farm is in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Eskom is identified as being responsible for an erratic power supply.

The narrative this celebrated author conveys is influential.  It’s unfortunate that the one he presents is so ignorant.

To be fair, the South African strand is a very small part of a big and ambitious book and McInerney’s rendering of his main subject, New York’s literary and financial elite, is wonderfully subtle and acute. I’ve loved his earlier books. And Bright, Precious Days is a great read when McInerney sticks to what he knows. But brightness falls on Manhattan and South Africa remains dark.

I hope that when McInerney comes to Cape Town next week – he is speaking at the Book Lounge – he takes the time to discover that South Africa is every bit as richly complex and nuanced.

McGregor is author of Khabzela; and co-editor At Risk and Load-shedding: Writing on and over the Edge of South Africa (Jonathan Ball Publishers)





The new Madam and Eve has landed

Madam and EveJacana Media is proud to present the new Madam and Eve collection: Take Me to Your Leader, by Stephen Francis and Rico:

This year we are in for a treat, with Madam & Eve back with more cartoons looking at domestic life and politics in the New South Africa.

It is hard to believe the Anderson family and their domestic sidekick, Eve, have been part of our daily landscape for 23 years. Dip into these cartoons for a much-needed chuckle.

Madam & Eve cartoons appear regularly in the Mail & Guardian, The Star, The Saturday Star, Herald, Mercury, Witness, Daily Dispatch, Cape Times, Pretoria News, Diamond Fields Advertiser, Die Volksblad, EC Today, Kokstad Advertiser and The Namibian.

I am always amazed by the energy and passion displayed by this writing-and-drawing duo that manages week after week to come up with fresh comedic ideas on which to make their point and build their powerful punchline.

- Business Day

About the authors

Stephen Francis is the writing half of the Madam & Eve team. Born in the United States in 1949, Stephen moved to South Africa in 1988. In 1992, witnessing the interesting and often funny dynamic between his South African mother-in-law and her domestic housekeeper, he conceptualised the Madam & Eve strip. Stephen Francis is also an award-winning script writer, and radio and TV personality.

Rico forms the other half of the creative team – as illustrator. Born in Austria in 1966, he now lives and works in Johannesburg, and has been drawing cartoons ever since he was old enough to hold a pencil. Besides his work on Madam & Eve, Rico also produces illustrations for a wide range of other publications.

Book details

'Burning rubber and black smoke': Bridget Hilton-Barber on how she almost lost her manuscript - by baking her laptop

Published in the Sunday Times

Student, Comrade, Prisoner, SpyStudent, Comrade, Prisoner, Spy
Bridget Hilton-Barber (Zebra Press)

I have lost many laptops to theft, and my external harddrive was recently pinched, so in the end throes of writing my latest book I became very protective over my laptop and its contents. I emailed myself the latest changes to my book every day and whenever I went out I hid my laptop – in different places to avoid the possibility of thieves and pilferers detecting my hiding patterns. I hid it in the bookshelf, I hid it under the bed, I hid it in the vegetable rack, I hid it in the clothes cupboard and then I hid it in the oven.

One lazy weekend I took a break from writing. A good friend was visiting in the guesthouse next door, and we decided to make a collective Sunday lunch. I was tasked with cooking the sweet potatoes, so I slicked down said potatoes with olive oil, draped them in sprigs of fresh rosemary, set them aside, turned on the oven to preheat and went for a glass of vino next door. After 20 minutes I went back to my oven to load the potatoes …

As I walked into the kitchen I was overpowered by the smell of burning rubber and the sight of thick black smoke curling out of the oven. Nooooo. The laptop. I stopped dead in my tracks, I screamed, I leapt many metres in the air, I went pale and sweaty, I clutched my madly beating heart. This was all in the nano second before I yanked open the oven door, seized the steaming laptop, tore off the burning rubber case, prised it open and stabbed at the “on” button.

OMG it was working! All downloads, documents, photographs and yes, my entire book, were still intact. The laptop’s CD drive had melted completely as had most of the bottom casing, giving it a rather Salvador Dali-esque appearance, but everything else seemed just fine, albeit hot and steamy. I dropped to my knees and gave thanks to every god and deity I could think of, tears of sheer relief sliding down my face.

Then I took a deep breath, put the sweet potatoes into the oven and went unsteadily back next door. Wine, I cried, wine. Now. There were shrieks of laughter as I recounted the sorry tale of my near death experience and downed several glasses to steady my shattered nerves.

You’re lucky it wasn’t an Apple Mac, chortled my friend, they have metal cases and you could have blown up the whole house never mind the entire block. But my laptop is a Samsung, which also makes a range of cooking appliances – haha – that promise a reduced cooking time and an even, thorough bake.

Mercifully I didn’t have one of those. Just a squishy, working laptop and its rubber case with my desperate handprint indelibly melted upon it.

As one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, once self-righteously pointed out, diligence is the mother of good luck, but then as English novelist Thomas Hardy said, some folks want their luck buttered.


Book details

Black cat

So I Iost one of my four temporary charges–three black cats and a black dog–for a day and it was a short trip from there to despair and searching of the soul and such matters. I got to thinking about how I should be somewhere else, in my own home (with my own dog) and not wearing someone else’s for a week like a sorry hermit crab, talking to someone else’s beloved pets like a crazy man–they just stare back in what looks like alarm and then bolt and hide for as long as they’re hungry–and to hell with cats anyway, who just want to run away for good as soon as they find the gap to a better life.

Charlie's good food

I drove a ski-boat down to Alexandria, Minnesota for something called “winterization”, listening all the way to the country music stations popping up from town to town: Tim McGraw singing how he’ll always be, and another man singing them pantyhose ain’t stayin’ on for long if the DJ puts Bon Jovi on.