Cartooning from Zapiro to Bitterkomix

May 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Brett Davidson interviewed Andy Mason on his recently published book “What’s So Funny” and put 5 questions to him that deal with the state of cartooning and cartooning of the state in SA.

(This interview is  published on

Where did the idea for a history of cartooning come from?

Well it actually rose out of my masters’ research that I did at the University of Kwazulu-Natal about 10 years ago. As cartoonist myself, I was interested in looking at the impact that cartooning had had on the South African struggle — whether in fact we could say that cartooning and comics had had any impact at all on the transition to democracy. I came to the conclusion that it had, albeit a modest one. And then from there I became more and more interested in particular in looking at the icons and stereotypes that cartoonists used in the South African context to describe the different actors in the political scenario.

I tried to define when South African cartooning started, I started to do research through the 50s and the liberal cartooning of the mid-century period, and then I went back to look at the antecedents to that, and eventually I went all the way back to a cartoon which was published in 1819 by George Cruikshank who was a leading London caricaturist of the day. I called it the Cruikshank’s cannibal cartoon. It shows the white settlers being devoured by these cannibal figures – these huge, hulking monstrous figures. And it kind of – for me that became an iconic cartoon, a prototypical South African cartoon.

The same time as I was doing that historical research the whole pace of political change in SA developed in the post-apartheid period – and moved from what I call the euphoric national consensus of the transition to a period which I call the discourse of disillusionment. And the cartoonist that I particularly focused on with regard to that was Zapiro. While I was writing the book, I became good friends with him. And I started to become involved in the actual unfolding story of this epic confrontation between the cartoonist and the political figure in South Africa–between Zapiro and Jacob Zuma.

And so that particular conflict or confrontation/contest seemed to me to be a contest between two enormously powerful forces which in South Africa had assumed a unique form. And that was kind of symbolized by this conflict between the politician and the artist or the cartoonist. Which is essentially an embodiment of the eternal conflict between the pen and the sword.

One of the illustrations you have is a particular drawing of Zapiro’s which you say displays a British style of cartooning. Is there a South African style that’s identifiable and different from any other style?

There is an evolving South African cartooning style. In my book when I talk about cartooning I talk about three main types of categories of cartooning. One is political cartooning, the other is the kind of educational campaign cartooning which was very influential in the pre-1994 period. And the third is underground cartooning, of which we have a very strong tradition in SA. There are different styles in the different sectors. Since the 90s the underground style of South African cartooning was hugely influenced by the Bitterkomix movement and in the political cartooning sector the cartooning style was hugely influenced by Zapiro. In fact all the cartoonists that came after Zapiro imitated him in one way or another.

I think that there is a style of SA cartooning. It’s not so much a particular visual style. Some are very influenced by the American traditions, others more by the British and European traditions. If there is a South African style of cartooning its more to do with other less visual aspects, such as a courageous engagement with the political environment. Our cartooning has become internationally known for its enormous courage and its ability to take political leaders to task in a way that would be considered very extreme in some countries, for example the USA.

What the underground cartoonists brought to political cartooning – though it didn’t start as a political movement – was a very liberated way of looking at the world, a strong left wing critical theory, and also a very scatological rude, aggressive kind of approach. They use a lot of sexual imagery and it was very robust.

If you look at the work of some of the up-and-coming new cartoonists, particularly the black cartoonists, you’ll see that robustness of the way in which they depict the political scenario and in which they depict political leaders is very groundbreaking and unique to SA. And it really does define SA cartooning.

Can you say a bit more about the Bitterkomix movement?

These were Afrikaans fine artists from Stellenbosch University. They were extremely radical. They were influenced by the underground press. They were very pornographic. They were also operating from within the Afrikaans establishment. They produced their comics in Afrikaans and critiqued their own society and looked at the psychosexual aspects of it. They drew parallels between perverse forms of sexual repression within the home and family, and the political scenario. They started to mount a very damning critique of patriarchy and the patriarchal system which lay behind Apartheid, which was basically Afrikaner nationalism.

They had a free ride for a while because there was very little censorship in those years. It was a kind of anything goes environment in which not only cartoonists but visual artists, musicians, stand up comedians — lots of people exploited that political environment.

Then when the euphoric period started to dissipate after Mandela left power and the failures of the Mbeki administration started to become apparent, cartoonists started to critique the new political establishment, which was predominantly black. But unfortunately what had happened was that the racial demographic change within the South African cartooning community hadn’t kept pace with the democratic changes in the rest of the country. So most of the cartoonists were still white, and the targets of their cartooning were black and so you started to get allegations of racism and those particularly revolved around the depiction of black people, particularly black politicians.

I saw there was a very challenging problematic there because cartoonists by the very nature of what they do, they work with stereotypes. They exaggerate everything. The way people look, facial stereotypes. They laid themselves open to a kind of a critique around racial issues. Interestingly that critique, even though it has been voiced by some very prominent public commentators, hasn’t really got a lot of traction. And the reason is that in South Africa there is a very robust discourse that goes on. There’s an enormous amount of name-calling, an enormous amount of political insult. Political insult is actually the modus operandi of the South African political establishment. For example, Helen Zille and Julius Malema are very unrestrained in their use of all kinds of epithets to describe each other, and they’re always insulting each other. So the political behaviour of people in positions of authority provides fantastic material for South African cartoonists.

Are you seeing more black cartoonists emerging now? Looking at your book, the faces and names are predominantly white, until quite recently

The first black cartoonists emerged in the alternative publications of the late apartheid period. Until the late 1970s you didn’t have any black cartoonists to speak of in the South African press. Then as new opportunities arose in the newspapers you started to get new cartoonists emerging. There are a couple of important ones. There’s Brandan Reynolds who’s at Business Day. He grew up in the Cape Flats. He’s a very sophisticated cartoonist who is influenced by the American scene. He has been very critical of Mbeki, very critical of Zuma. He shows politicians as pigs rooting in the trough for example, and all that sort of stuff.

You have Sifiso Yalo who is at the Sowetan, probably the most prominent black cartoonist in that milieu. You have Wilson Mgobhozi who took over from Zapiro at The Star and is syndicated throughout the Independent newspaper group. You have a couple of other lesser figures – Bethuel Mangena at Sunday World and a couple of others like that. Numerically they are not very many and the demographic is still completely skewed, but because of syndication these guys get a lot of exposure. Just in terms of publication I think we have a strong presence of significant black cartoonists in South Africa, but it’s nowhere near where we want to go. It’s probably a generational thing. Cartoonists are very tenacious in holding on to their positions. A cartoonist like Fred Mouton who started working for Die Burger during the height of apartheid — I think he started in 1974 — he’s still at Die Burger today.

What do you make of claims that South Africans are not ready for satire (made mainly by broadcasters reluctant to air satirical shows such as ZA News). The history of cartoons would suggest that that’s nonsense.

I don’t believe that for a moment. If you just look at the field of stand-up comedy — a field of satire where the number of South African black comics has increased exponentially in the past ten years – there are so many brilliant black stand up comedians now. Perhaps because it’s a theatrical discipline it has outstripped cartooning, which is in a sense a lonely, arduous field of activity. But it’s only a matter of time. I also think that the media themselves are to blame for not being more proactive in providing the opportunities that should be provided. But the South African satirical tradition is extremely strong. It started off with challenging the British, with Daniel Boonzaier slagging off Smuts and Botha in the early years of the last century. It went through the liberal cartoonists slagging off the Nationalist government. It intensified during the 80s in the oppositional papers of the alternative press and it blossomed in the 90s with the new South African democracy. And it’s on a roll, it’s not going to be stopped. The efforts being made by the establishment to contain that space – which I call the Jester’s space — are not that successful and a tradition has been established which is going to be very difficult to combat. I think satire in South Africa is definitely here to stay.


The Trantraal Bros on comic art in SA

April 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Coloureds

An interview with the famous Trantraal Bros on AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

We sent 5 Questions to South African comic artists Nathan and Andre Trantraal. Born in the Western Cape, The Trantraal Brothers are known for their weekly cartoon in the local newspaper. The questions were sent out to both brothers. Nathan got back to us saying “the answers are mine and although we share most of these opinions, feel free to contribute all brutish comments to me and whatever else you find of real value to my brother Andre.”–Tom Devriendt.

You drew some South African press attention with the publication of “Coloureds”. Your new drawings picture “The Richenbaums”. Who are The Richenbaums? And what have been the reactions to The Richenbaums so far?

The Richenbaums is a strip about a dysfunctional coloured family. And I know what you’re thinking. What coloured family isn’t? But the difference with The Richenbaums is that they never realize they’re dysfunctional. They are a really happy family. We based the strip on a family that my mother grew up with in the 70’s. They were neighbours and close friends of the family. Originally we thought we might set the strip during Apartheid, and I’m still not quite sure why we didn’t go with that. It seems like a great idea in retrospect. But I guess we would have been cancelled by now anyway. About the reception of the strip: Well, suffice to say it has been a mixed bag. Not all of the Cape Times readers liked it, and from the outset criticism started rolling in, about the way how some of the characters spoke — because the strip is in English and the characters we based The Richenbaums on were working class, we decided to make them speak in a sort of made-up English. Mostly we had them speaking English the way they would spell it, so basically a lot of the dialogue is simply misspelt. This also led to accusations of the strip and its creators being illiterate. Adding to that furore, around Christmas time and New Year’s we published two strips back to back that touched on classism and the other racial stereotypes. I have never seen white people more upset since the Grinch stole Christmas. People were asking for the strip to be removed from the paper and for a while we were branded as racists — never mind the fact that one of these strips dealt with racist stereotyping within the coloured community itself. But anyway, I make it sound all bad, because on the other end I have met a lot of people who love the strip. People who never even read cartoons tell me they love The Richenbaums and that they relate to the characters’s situations. I know of people who work in factories who never buy The Cape Times except on a Friday, and they tell the manager to buy a dozen copies to circulate through the place. So it’s cool beans.

Already publishing The Richenbaums on a weekly basis in the Cape Times, you have also decided to make the series available on Facebook and Twitter. Why? Are these social media more than an extra channel through which to get yourself known?

We don’t actually publish the strip on social networks to get ourselves known or promoted. There isn’t real reasoning behind that. Except that people sometimes wonder — with the Cape Times being a regional paper — how to get the strip in Johannesburg or wherever. And the same goes for folks from overseas. If someone digs what you do but they have no access to it: that really makes me feel lousy. Availability is everything to me. And that’s what I love about the internet: stuff I could never get access to here in South Africa, now I can find browsing the web. I know someone will have uploaded it onto a file sharing page or something, often stuff that he or she paid for, even when there’s nothing in it for them… We have benefited from that for years, from music to books. And I always loved that mentality. In Japan you get something called Scanlation, guys who scan whole volumes of manga comics and translate the stuff themselves and stick it onto the web just because they’re fans and want to share with other fans. If we had the time to do it we would translate all our Afrikaans work into English and stick it up on the internet for free. Because I want to be part of that. It’s fucking socialism. The thing with The Richenbaums is, we get paid a salary for doing that strip so I can make a living doing that, I don’t need to squeeze pennies out of everything we do or make it work for every opportunity you get. I do comics because I love art and writing, and being able to really get into it is a really nice feeling. Before digital media, we used to colour everything by hand, and if someone really liked it, we would give it to them. Today people still ask why we don’t exhibit our original artwork. In my mind it’s like: why? You want it, you can have it, I’ll draw another one some time. A while ago I read about Hergé: he never sold his original artwork, he always gave it away to friends. That’s what we’re on about.

In your series (both in Coloureds and in The Richenbaums) you’re openly engaging ‘the Coloured question’, so we guess you don’t mind us asking for your thoughts on Jimmy Manyi’s outburst, Trevor Manuel’s ‘open letter’ to Manyi, the South African mainstream media’s way of covering these debates and the decision by popular COSATU leader Tony Ehrenreich to run for mayor of Cape Town? What are your thoughts?

I really couldn’t care less about politics, especially in South Africa. I never read the papers, except the sports section and the funnies. Regarding Manyi’s comments: maybe he doesn’t care for coloured people or whatever, but let me just say that the average coloured person I know says a whole lot of worse things about black people on a daily basis, and believe me, black people do the same thing. The average black or coloured person is too busy eking out a living in a country that doesn’t love them to be concerned about what either Manyi or Manuel says or thinks. Those are middle class issues, and it is middle class people who fight it out in the papers, so they shouldn’t presume to speak for the man in the streets. The South African mainstream likes to have a black man they can laugh at, a black man who says something that is so obviously wrong they can jump at the opportunity to lampoon him. Take Julius Malema, for example. I don’t particularly like the way people talk or write about him. I mean, he’s a dumb bastard, but there’s just something very uncomfortably self-righteous about it. Don’t call a black person dumb in the media every single day. “Dom Kaffir” [dumb kaffir, TD] is what the old government used to say. And whether it is deliberate or not, it has that undercurrent.

Regarding Tony Ehrenreich: well, what can I say about him, except that someone told me recently Ehrenreich wants to heavily tax everyone living in upper middle class places like [Cape Town’s wealthy suburb] Constantia. I thought that was really funny and it upset people who live in Constantia of course. I love it when rich people are offended. Other than that I don’t really know the guy and I don’t really care who runs the city of Cape Town. It is always going to be a drag, isn’t it? I mean if Tony Ehrenreich comes in, what is he going to do that whoever is currently running the city now isn’t doing yet? Nothing, probably. Because the people who elect these mayors eat up whatever is fed to them in the media. If Tony has a few cool catch-phrases and acts like the little engine that works whenever the cameras are rolling, then working class people are going to like him and they might vote for him. Then he’ll get into office and the next thing he does is to remember he is an educated man. The first people who get snubbed are the people who fell for his sweet talk. It’s a bit like banging a girl and then not call her back afterwards, isn’t it?

So who or what is a coloured?

The dictionary describes a coloured as a small, brown person with either curly or straight black hair. But seriously, they are the descendants of the slaves brought from different parts of the world by Dutch colonizers. Places like India, Indonesia, etc., wherever they got their slaves from, and the white and indigenous Khoisan people of course. These slaves got knocked up by their Masters and that’s how the first coloured babies came into existence. A coloured is someone of mixed blood and often of mixed heritage. I don’t know who started calling people “coloureds”. I know in America calling somebody a “coloured” would be hugely insulting and no one would even think of doing it. But in South Africa it is a common term. I guess people are a bit more laid-back here. Every New Year, coloured people have a ceremony where they dress up in colourful suites, put on black face and parade down the street. And… they call themselves ‘The Coons’. I don’t mean to sound disapproving when I say that. I like that. I’d say Coloured culture is influenced a lot by African-American culture. Their taste in music and clothing and even the way they use language. I often think that Coloureds have more in common with black Americans than with black South Africans. And I think that divide in South Africa has a lot to do with the social engineering during Apartheid where the government had a system classifying coloured people as inferior but black people as even more inferior. So coloureds were number 2 and blacks were number 3, and I guess you know who were number 1, elected by a peer of themselves. A lot of coloured people bought into that, so that after the fall of Apartheid that old grudge remained, which brings us back to Manyi and why you shouldn’t really take it to heart. Here is something you might not know: a lot of white people are coloureds too, and no, I don’t mean because they’re down with the hood, no I mean like really, they have the same mixed blood. If you check the bloodline — and I’ve actually done some research on this — you’ll find that almost everybody is mixed somewhere down the line. So no, there’s no pure race any more. Sorry.

Who among your peers — artists, animators, filmmakers, musicians, bloggers, etc — make work in South Africa now that you can identify with?

I’m sorry to confess I don’t even read South African comic books. The scene just doesn’t really inspire us. For too long I think there were just a lot of guys out there trying to make comix, with a capital X, to indicate that this stuff wasn’t for kids, when in reality this stuff was just a lot of puerile shit. They were a bunch of geeks who were very influenced by the ‘underground’ comix scene in America during the Seventies. Those comics were all about who could make a book with the most dicks in it. Everyone was just trying to out-gross the other, trying to be more obscene than the next guy. And for some reason — probably too complicated to go into here — that was the general direction comics went into for a long time in South Africa. I think it is starting to change a little now but one of the problems still is that all our comic book artists are bred at Universities. You have a lot of graphic designers doing a course on comics and then decide they want to draw comics. The result of that mostly being a bunch of guys who learned to draw but who can’t write, because they don’t read. Most of the time. So it is pitiful but that is the way it is.

The only person operating in South Africa at the moment whose work I relate to and go back to over and over again is Ronelda Kamfer. The first time I read her debut Noudat Slapende Honde, I was dumbstruck by the veracity of it all, it was gut-wrenched writing and I love something, anything, that can do that, that gives me that physical reaction. That’s what Martin Scorsese did the first time I watched Mean Streets and what Joe Sacco did the first time I read Palestine. It is just something that is so unique and powerful you know you’re going to have to wait another decade for another fix like this. Unfortunately I can’t say there is much else that excites me around these parts. That is one of the reasons we do what we do, because I want to be entertained. If someone did the stuff I wanted to read I could go do something else, like work in a bank or something. Something relaxing.

Then of course, there is JM Coetzee, whom I think many people don’t consider to be a South African anymore. I remember when he won the Nobel Prize for literature there was like a five second mention of it on the news. I was like: what?! Everything we know about approaching literature we learned from reading Coetzee. A writer on the level of Joyce, Eliot or anyone in that canon. And he writes about places I know, places I have been to and characters I know. That’s amazing. For us, craftsmanship has always been very important and this is what you walk away with after you read Coetzee, the perfection of the prose and the wealth of intelligence that informs that prose. When I draw I try to approach it the way he approaches writing. Every line must be perfect. If I make a mistake when I draw, it bothers me less than when I write a weak line. Every line should be alive and have a history of its own. Flaubert called it “Le mot juste”.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Interviews category at Comic Art Communication.