Challenging Democracy

| April 19, 2011

I was recently asked about my participation in student protests back in my home country of South Africa – very thought provoking.  It got me thinking about how we protest today – within in the medias we have to our availability.

South Africa has been a democratic country now for 16 years and in that time there have been three democratically elected presidents and the country has seen many changes – some good and some horrific. As a South African who has been outside the borders for the last 5 years, I am always anxious about what is happening inside the country as well as how it is perceived by the general populace and by the observers from outside. During Apartheid our media was controlled and the populace had no control over what was published and how it was disseminated. Though South African media has always had ways to speak to the people and represent the voice of the people – by underground reports, books, articles, pictures and other media sources. When the reporters or novelists or poets were White, more often than not their works were able to slip through the cracks – at least for periods of time before they were banned. I remember growing up in Apartheid South Africa and having my school teachers make sure that we were given access to the banned poetry and books – so that we had a bigger picture to consider with both our academic work, as well as our understanding of the world we lived in. My 8th grade English teacher had a particular fondness for satirist cartoons as he said it was a wonderful double-edged sword that some people “got” and others didn’t; and that he would make sure we always got the message intended and that we never read things at face value. Since then I have always been aware of the underlying messages and nurtured my love for cartoons as I watched them reflect South Africa’s transition from an Apartheid regime to a democratic society.

Zapiro is one such cartoonist. Zapiro’s work has run across a number of processes in political development in South Africa, and he has become a household name in his field of political cartooning. Zapiro’s work reflects the changing context, from the tensions of constraint and radicalism of the 1980’s to the euphoria of the transition, and the tempered optimism of the post-apartheid period. With the advent of democracy in South Africa, Zapiro has gone from the representation of Nelson Mandela as regal and benevolent, to shifting his position back to being a political voice and reclaiming his voice as a cartoonist taking the moral high ground. He explains this shift as it relates to the changing political context of South Africa within its short democratic period. Zapiro believes that his right and license to criticize political leaders in South Africa is largely due to his own struggle credentials, and his role in the liberation of South Africa- and I agree with him.

Political cartoons have always provided a space where humor can be used to challenge elites and hold governments to account. They provide us with thought-provoking, ideologically-framed sardonic insights and allow us to interpret events and contexts for ourselves as they unfold in society. Because of their irreverent and satirical nature, political cartoons provoke fervent responses by the media and by the general populace, and for this reason alone they are important and offer the key resource of a political geographer’s analyses, of people, places and events. They hold the elements of a nation’s zeitgeist that can be used to explore and navigate a wide range of inter-connected issues within complex contexts.

Because of his regular slots in the local newspapers and because of his publications, Zapiro has indeed been seen as a watchdog of the political process in South Africa –  and he is a legitimate watchdog –  a necessary one – as he keeps the demos aware of what is happening to the democracy of their making. And as we laugh and sigh at his satirical and humorous take on South Africa,  we are given food for thought.