5 Zombie Questions: Zapiro

It's no surprise that imagery of the dead - and undead - has popped up regularly in the work of South African cartoonist Zapiro because there are many appropriate metaphors that can be derived from the depictions but it really came to a head in 2016 with a hard-hitting cartoon of a zombified then president Jacob Zuma stumbling his way through our democracy that he was busy destroying.

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 25 April 2019
Category: Feature
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Zapiro with his book Dead President Walking and brainwavez.org's LEGO zombie minifigure
Above: Zapiro with brainwavez.org's LEGO zombie minifgure at a book signing for his 2016 annual Dead President Walking.
Zapiro, the pen name of Jonathan Shapiro, South Africa's most prominent editorial cartoonist, has been tweaking the political tiger's tail in South Africa for decades with his hard hitting commentary on political and business corruption, as well as social issues that affect the country. Zapiro's first cartoons were published in South in 1987, which gave his left-leaning, anti-apartheid stance a platform long before the country transitioned to a democracy and his work expanded to other publications.

Naturally, over the years certain controversial themes and types of imagery have emerged in his work, the most famous of which is the "Rape Of Lady Justice" series of cartoons. It has drawn diverse reactions ranging from amusement to extreme outrage and, in some people, myself included, has resulted in a very intellectual and emotional debate about where the line is - and where it should be - that still continues and is provoked further every time he adds a new cartoon to the series.

Zapiro Cartoon: Two New TV Channels On Subscription Based DSTV
Above: "Two New TV Channels On Subscription Based DSTV", Mail & Guardian, 22 August 2013. [ Cartoon Details ]
However, what has been particularly interesting about Zapiro's career is that although he provokes his intention has never been to hurt. We live in a country that has digressed to the point at which people would rather hurl insults (and, increasingly, chairs - or even punches) at each other than actually engage on an intellectual level and Zapiro is one of the people who still forces us to confront issues in a more measured and academic way.

As a good political cartoonist should, he finds a unique way to shine a light on a topical issue or uses satire to highlight idiocy or ridiculous contradictions but there have been times where he has crossed that line (by his own admittance) due to cultural differences or simply privilege clouding his ability to see an alternative point of view that may interpret his imagery in a different way that hurts on a very visceral level.

Zapiro Cartoon: Tripartite Fright Night
Above: "Tripartite Fright Night", Sunday Times, 29 October 2017. [ Cartoon Details ]
It's a complicated line and it's led, on occasion, to organisations and individuals lodging complaints against him and, most famously, the ex president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, suing him on numerous occasions, including one case that, at the time, was the biggest lawsuit ever brought against a cartoonist anywhere in the world. All the president's cases were eventually withdrawn at the eleventh hour but I can imagine that they still took an emotional toll, nevermind the waste of time and energy preparing counter arguments for the courts.

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5 Zombie Questions

This article is not about that minefield, however, although I felt that to be balanced it is something that needed to be acknowledged. In contrast, cartooning can also be very light hearted, even when it deals with difficult and dark subjects and, so, I interviewed him about a much more amusing theme that has popped up in his work from time to time, and that is imagery of the dead, undead, and, specifically, zombies. The imagery was at its most prominent in 2016 when Zapiro drew a cartoon that was published in the Sunday Times in April of that year that featured the then president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, as a zombie (or, appropriately, "zumbie") stumbling away from a Concourt (Constitutional Court) cannon that has blasted a hole right through him in front of the Union Buildings.

That cartoon's imagery was so powerful that it was reworked for the cover of his 2016 annual, Dead President Walking. It was an uncharacteristically macabre choice that was well discussed before the decision was made because it's not the kind of imagery that members of the average, conservative, book-buying South African public are used to, in contrast to most comics fans who read much more graphic content. Yet there it would be: an exposed brain, a loose eyeball, and rotting flesh unavoidably, blatantly on the cover in bookshops and on promotional materials all around the country.

It was a bold move and it worked.

Question 1: What's the history of the iconography showing former South African President Jacob Zuma as a zombie? When did he first debut and in what context do you most like to use him?

Zapiro: That is a heck of an interesting question for me, to be honest, because, I mean, nobody's asked that in such a specific way before.

I realised that I go earlier than 2007, which is when he really made his debut as a zombie with a bunch of "zumbie" followers. It was 2007 in the runup to Polokwane when [I first depicted him] with the zumbie [horde] but my first critical cartoon of Zuma was the end of 2002 and in the period of 2003 and 2004 I was starting to get stuck into him. By the time Mbeki fired him after the [Schabir] Shaik verdict - it was the verdict but not the sentence, they were waiting for the sentence... it was before the sentence, I can't remember exactly... it was around that time. Mbeki was kind of almost forced to act, in some way. He fired his deputy president and, at that point... so it's June of 2005, I drew Mbeki and Zuma speaking to each other. Mbeki's on the left, Zuma's on the right, and Mbkei says, "Let me be frank..." and he's speaking to, basically, a suit with a skull. And that, I think, is the origin of the thing.

I drew him as, clearly, politically dead at that point.

Untitled Zapiro cartoon from 12 June 2005
Above: Untitled, Sunday Times, 12 June 2005. [ Cartoon Details ]
There's been a lot of hopeful stuff that happens in cartoons where you're not wishing for the person's actual death but you're kind of, sometimes, talking about the moment but knowing full well that things could shift again.

Because I regarded Zuma already from the end of 2002 as corrupt I was almost revelling in the moment that he was being axed; that he was at that point politically dead. I didn't necessarily believe that he was dead forever politically but that was the moment.

Then the book that I did, Is there A Spin Doctor In The House? [Zapiro's 2005 annual], was Zuma with his head under his arm - you know, that classic Elizabethan cliché, and that book was published a few months later, so September 2005.

So those are kind of the first two.

Zapiro Cartoon: Zumassic Park - Something Has Survived
Above: "Zumassic Park - Something Has Survived", Mail & Guardian, 13 October 2005. [ Cartoon Details ]
Then, in October of 2005 I drew Zumassic Park, where Zuma is this kind of skeleton - it was just after the movie Jurassic Park... well, actually, it was a while after they did the next movie [The Lost World: Jurassic Park, in 1997, with the tagline] "something has survived", which I would say is also a signal of the zumbie thing because you're going to get the raising of the dead.

So when they had that little phrase, "something has survived", with the Jurassic Park logo it gave me a chance to kind of draw that silhouette of the dinosaur that survived, the T-rex that survived. The guys on his back at that point are Fikile Mbalula, [Zwelinzima] Vavi, and Blade [Nzimande], as ANC Youth League - Fikile Mbalula was Youth League; Vavi, obviously, COSATU; and Blade Nzimande was still at SACP. And those were his kind of key "zumbies" at the time, although I hadn't done them as such they were now riding the back of this silhouette dinosaur.

Untitled Zapiro cartoon from 5 January 2006
Above: Untitled, Mail & Guardian, 5 January 2006. [ Cartoon Details ]
Then at the beginning of 2006 I had him as the kind of skeleton - it was a tribute to Derek Bauer's drawings so it was almost in the style of Bauer - but he is this walking skeleton of 2005 but again the theme is almost starting to happen because he's a shell, he's missing limbs and he's completely awful looking and skeletal and kind of zombie like. At 2006 he's a little miniature baby Zuma lurching forward with a suicide belt strapped around him - tick, tick, tick. So that theme is really happening at that point.

Zapiro Cartoon: Tripartite Fright Night
Above: "Zumassic Park 2005", Sunday Times, 19 December 2005. [ Cartoon Details ]
At the end of 2005 I did one of those large end-of-year colour drawings that was a Zumassic Park theme-park drawing with a giant skull where all these things are happening and the various, I suppose, the zumbies that are about to happen are kind of doing their thing with the Zumassic Park sign.

Untitled Zapiro Vengeance Of The Zumbies cartoon from 16 May 2006
Above: Untitled (Vengeance Of The Zumbies), Independent Newspapers, 16 May 2006. [ Cartoon Details ]
So it's all sort of starting to happen and then the first actual zumbie drawing is in the middle of May of 2006. It says "He came back from the dead" and then the big lettering, "Vengeance of the zumbies" and then zumbies follow. At that point the zumbies were Fikile Mbalula, again, and Zizi Kodwa, also [ANC] Youth League, and Buti Manamela, SACP Youth League, and this is the one where he really kind of comes up from out the grave with all the worms and the look of bats and cemeteries and everything.

So that's the first of those.

Untitled Zapiro zumbie highway cartoon from 9 December 2007
Above: Untitled (Zumbie Highway), Sunday Times, 9 December 2007.
The 12th of December, so the first part of December of 2007, is where things were moving towards Polokwane and it looked very much already, to anyone who was watching, as if, no matter how politically damaged he actually was, he was going to actually win at Polokwane with, now, quite a major bunch of zumbies with him. So the text there said "He was back from the dead! They rose in rank in file.... Vengeance is theirs! Hear their moan...." and they go "Umshini wam... umshini wam..." and they all are following him on the - the big thing on the bottom of that says "zumbie highway" - so it was taking another one of those zumbie/zombie themes and it was towards Polokwane and [depicted] there you have the ANC Youth League, the ANC Women's League, the MK veterans, the ANC branches, and there's COSATU and the SACP and you can actually recognise some of these very horrible zumbies, you can recognise their characters, you know, through the skulls and missing eyes and so on.

Zapiro Cartoon: Post-Polokwane Holiday Movies
Above: "Post-Polokwane Holiday Movies", Sunday Times, 23 December 2007. [ Cartoon Details ]
That was the second of the actual zumbie things and then as he won the day in Polokwane I did the end-of-the-year cartoon, the post Polokwane holiday movies, and one of those movies was "Invasion Of The Zumbies" and there you have, again, some of those same characters and they're entering the hall and there's Terror Lekota who was, of course, at that time the secretary-general, I think, I don't think he was chair, I think he was secretary-general. Anyway, it says "Sheer Terror" above him as he gets scared out of the hall.

Zapiro Cartoon: The Cult Of Zuma
Above: "The Cult Of Zuma", Sunday Times, 12 April 2009. [ Cartoon Details ]
So that was the third explicit zumbie thing but it kind of continued. There's one from 2009 where it's a cult of Zuma and he's drawn as a sort of a giant idol, cross legged and looks like a sort of evil Buddha kind of look, but this one is "The cult of Zuma: brainwash" and the characters that he's brainwashing with his shower are in full zumbie, although nothing says "zumbie" here but they're in the kind of zumbie mode and it's Sipho Seepe and, I'm afraid, Pallo Jordan, which I kind of regret in a way but, you know, at the time there were various people who were sort of helping him [Zuma] in various ways; Xolela Mangcu, Willie Hofmyer - he's the one who's getting his brain showered as he goes past - and that was quite painful for me, I knew Willie very well; I happened to be in the cell next to his when he was in detention for a long time and I was in there for a short time - and then Mokotedi Mpshe, who clearly, you know, had come up with this so-called "judicial solution" that was actually a political solution to drop the charges against Zuma.

Zapiro Cartoon: New Human Species Homo Naledi Unveiled In SA
Above: "New Human Species Homo Naledi Unveiled In SA", Mail & Guardian, 11 September 2015. [ Cartoon Details ]
I think this one also looks very zumbie like to me but it's a slightly bigger stretch but the fossil find [that was discovered in 2013 and described] in 2015 - you know the huge fossil find, Naledi [Homo naledi] and all that - and it's the largest collection ever assembled and it's the ANC leadership and they're all these various skeletons, some of them very recognisable, some of them in pieces and all that so it sort of continues the theme.

I think the next thing really is the dead president walking cartoon that was in the Sunday Times in April 2016, where it says "oaf of office" in the top left and then he actually says, "...Zumbie not fazed!... Zumbie still number one" and he's been shot through his body by the Concourt, by a cannon behind him, and you see the Union Buildings through his body.

Question 2: How did you go about brainstorming and creating the President Zuma zombie cartoon from April 2016 upon which the cover of Dead President Walking [Zapiro's 2016 annual] is based?

Zapiro: The cartoon itself... I remember that I was trying to come up with a number of cartoons around just how radical it was, how cataclysmic it was, that you had a president who can carry on as if nothing has happened after the apex court of the country, the Constitutional Court, the apex court of any country, is absolutely crucial to what goes on in the body politic. And for the Constitutional Court to come up with this damning judgement that said that he violated the constitution and for him then to carry on as if nothing happened, I mean, I did a couple of cartoons around the ridiculous apology, the so-called apology that he gave and the ANC accepting that apology.

Zapiro Cartoon: Dead President Walking
Above: "Dead President Walking", Sunday Times, 3 April 2016. [ Cartoon Details ]
I did the Sunday Times [cartoon] on the Friday after the judgement and into the Saturday but on that Friday night, while I was yet to finish the cartoon, he gave the apology on TV - I think he deliberately did it when nobody is watching TV, you know, people are out jolling - and I taped it and I saw. I just could not believe how pathetic the apology was. So the cartoon came - and I was still finishing the cartoon when I was getting even more angry at his lack of proper apology and the fact that he was to going to be stepping down or doing anything much after that damning judgement. So I wanted to show that and that's when I came up with the term "dead president walking".

I was feeling he's politically really dead now and even the ANC can see that but he's still got this ability to keep on going and to keep enough of the factions within the ANC that he needs and the key positions, the key cabinet positions and so on, to keep those things with him so that he can, no matter corrupt he is seen to be, no matter how dead he is seen to be, and how much of a liability to the ANC, he keeps going.

So that was the thinking behind it and then by the time I had finished that drawing I knew that that should be the cover of the book.

Question 3: The cartoon really sums up the year - and, little did we know at the time, the next two years to come, too. What did the process of reworking it for the annual, which was published at the end of October 2016, entail, and how did people react when they saw it?

Zapiro: I knew it wouldn't necessarily be exactly the same drawing; I did rework it and it's beautifully coloured by [cartoonist] Roberto - Robbie Milan, he goes by the name Roberto - and I've worked with him a lot, and once I was doing the book I thought I really would like to get him to do it and I'm so pleased that I did.

Dead President Walking book cover
Above: The cover of Dead President Walking, Zapiro's annual for 2016, with colours by Roberto. [ Buy it through Raru ]
I reworked it and did something quite unusual, two very unusual things. The first is to make a book cover that is utterly, utterly macabre and quite disgusting - you know, the eye hanging out, the brain exposed, and the body shot through and all that, and I mean it's not as if I shy away from doing rough cartoons but I don't usually put that sort of thing on a book cover. Previously I suppose the roughest thing would be Zuma holding his head in 2005 and it's no surprise that it's Zuma but even then that was that kind of jokey sort of Beano/Dandy British comics kind of sendup of this recent thing of the head under the arm. It's that sort of thing, or Addams Family, you know, a little bit like that. But this one is really full on comics, Tales From The Crypt kind of disgusting. It's almost the sort of worms and, you know, yellow eyes and things hanging and brain exposed and so on and so that's the first thing and I had to actually get that past my publishers who are incredibly supportive but I do run things by them.

I phoned Bridget Impey at Jacana having not too long before that phoned her and sent her another cartoon that I was sure was going to be the cover of the book and that is in the book, it's the Guptas cartoon that's "Buy The Beloved Country" where they're online trying to buy cabinet ministers and all that and there's a special on cabinet ministers and they have Zuma, their little lapdog, on their knee. And that, I thought, would have made a really nice book cover and it's playing on the most famous book ever written about South Africa, etcetera, but the moment I thought of this cartoon it felt like the political moment to actually do something rough. We thought about it for a few days and I got back to her and said, no, I'm absolutely convinced that by the end of the year things will be so all over the place and people will be so angry that it will work and clearly it has. You asked how people have reacted, well they've reacted really, really well to the drawing.

The second thing about it that's a bit different to some of my other covers is the amount of text that I've put on that cover. The image is actually pretty darn simple. This time around on the cover version he's been shot through from the front and you don't see the cannon, you just see the cannonballs, and they've made the same big hole in his body, which also fits with another theme that I've been using of the kind of hollow man - you can check those out, there's a few of them, which have happened over the past couple of years. Very much I think the walking hollow man is also a zumbie motif.

Zapiro Cartoon: Tripartite Fright Night
Above: "Zuma Hollow Man - The Man Who Giggles While The Country Goes Down The Drain", The Times, 19 February 2015. My research found the earliest Hollow Man cartoon in 2014. [ Cartoon Details ]
So I carried on that hollow man thing for these two cartoons but I put a heck of a lot of text in. Each cannonball is labelled and I could have just carried on - there are so many scandals I could have come up with twice the number of cannonballs but I thought that would be graphically a little bit too much noise. But I wanted to refer to the 783 charges and the rape charge and the Concourt decision and various other things and all the various scandals, the spy tapes and so on, that I then put on those cannonballs.

Question 4: In a zombie apocalypse how could the pen still be mightier than the sword?

Zapiro: That's cool. I suppose you could find out something like in Shaun Of The Dead where a well aimed calligraphy pen in the jugular could somehow do what heavy weaponry wouldn't do against the zumbies or the zombies.

If satire in some parallel universe, which is what all those zombie things are about, satire works better than bludgeoning, you could imagine that I suppose.

Question 5: Over the years, who was the best Zumbie sidekick?

Zapiro: The Zumbie sidekick is going to change from time to time. I mean, at various points it could well have been Juju - Julius Malema. He was so instrumental in saying things like "We'll kill for Zuma" - he almost in terms of his language and the way that he is so dramatic and the way that he used words like "kill" is someone who kind of evokes that sort of imagery. I've had him, himself, martyred. I've had him as the Frankenstein monster being actually raised by Zuma so it's almost flipped around where he was starting to go though difficulties and Zuma kind of tried to revive him because they had that symbiotic... they did have a symbiotic sort of relationship and they needed each other: two populists - one with huge power and one with power to help.

Then, of course, that relationship kept changing so, yeah, there's a very interesting dynamic around the Juju stuff. I mean, after Fikile Mbalula Juju took over in a far bigger way so he would be... it almost feels like if you had to pick one it would be him even though the relationship has shifted so much. But then later somebody like Collen Maine, you know the current ANC Youth League leader, "Mr Oros", is a whip of a zumbie sidekick, I mean he's much funnier to draw as Mr Oros or as Mr Pumpkin in lieu as Mr Oros or whatever but, you know, he's not really in the same league as Juju. Even Vavi and Fikile himself and various other people have been part of that, of the zumbies in a key way at various times but, you know, Vaviā€¦ I was actually very sorry to include in some of those - I felt I had to; he's even in the Rape Of Justice cartoon - because of the things he was saying as well at the time and he's kind of recanted so he's clearly not part of that now.

He's in fact, you now, he'd be one of the people trying to either throw a calligraphy pen or use a sword or whatever is useful like the LPs in Shaun Of The Dead!

Zapiro Cartoon: Halloween 2016
Above: "Halloween 2016", Sunday Times, 30 October 2016. [ Cartoon Details ]

Zapiro: Official Site, Official Site, Facebook, Zapiro, Wikipedia

Zapiro is a special guest of the 2019 FanCon Cape Town Comic Con and will be appearing at the convention on Sunday, 28 April 2019, which includes a panel on satire and cartooning on the main stage at 13:00. There will also be a stand promoting his work in the artists' alley throughout the weekend.

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Tags: Comics, Horror, South African Comics/#sacomics, Speculative Fiction, Zombies

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