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.


Time of the Writer, Durban

March 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Kif or Kak?! Andy Mason on SA Comic Art.

February 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

For those that didn’t see it on Mahala, here’s the full version of the interview Sean O’Toole had with Andy Mason. Andy recently launched his book ‘What’s so Funny’ and has a thing or two to say about South African comic art yesterday, today and tomorrow.

[Taken from

ND Mazin

For much of the past decade Andy Mason, better known as N.D. Mazin and Pooh in the local comix underground, has been working on a book. A serious book. Nominally. Titled What’s So Funny, Andy’s book offers an assiduously researched history of cartooning in South Africa. There are various reasons his book took so long: surfing, indecisive editors, a move from Durban to Cape Town, other stuff. As it turns out, the delay was useful, allowing Andy, head of the Comic Art Unit at the Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts at Stellenbosch University, to include Zapiro’s controversial Rape of Justice cartoon.

Mahala: Instead of talking about your long white hair, I want to ask you about your star turn in Bitterkomix 15. Joe Dog (aka Anton Kannemeyer) portrays you as someone who talks a lot. How did it feel to be the subject of a caricature?

Well, I do talk a lot, especially about comix, when I get the chance, which is not very often, since there aren’t that many people interested enough to listen for longer than two minutes. Anton talks a lot too, by the way, when he gets going. As far as cartoonists being the subject of caricatures is concerned, I think it should be compulsory. Who watches the Watchmen?

Andy Mason - Whats So Funny?

Your new book is a history of political illustration and cartooning in SA. Who for you were some of the big discoveries from the past? The names we no longer remember or speak about.

The discovery of George Cruikshank’s cannibal ogres from 1819 — the prototypical South African racial caricatures — blew me away. It took me months to work out how I felt about them. William Schroder’s weekly comic magazine The Knobkerrie, published in the mid-1880s, which I found a couple of original copies of, is one of my favourites because it shows how vibrant the small publishing scene in Cape Town was in those days. I love Len Sak, the creator of Jojo, an old white Jewish guy who was South Africa’s most popular black cartoonist for half a century. I also love Richard Smith’s early stuff, ultra cross-hatchy and stylish; Derek Bauer was (and still is) incredible. Working with the Bitterkomix artists, with the Madam & Eve crew, with Zapiro, have all been great opportunities (and big learning curves). These guys are all real pros. And then there’s Joe Daly. A top French comic artist told me at a festival in France last year that as far as he’s concerned, Joe Daly is the best comic artist in the world.

Joe Daly - Scrublands
Joe Daly – Scrublands.

What do you personally think of Joe Daly’s work?

I love Joe’s stuff. I just wish more people knew about it here in South Africa, especially young wired geeky guys who smoke too much weed and watch slacker movies. Joe’s books are 100% tailor-made for this audience. But what makes them unusual is their South African origin. It also raises the more general issue of origins in a globalised world. What does it matter that Joe Daly produces hilarious slacker fables from a room in Mowbray, since his entire sensibility is cradled in a cultural cocoon that’s more Californian than anything else? The titles of his books with their Bob Dylan references, his strip-malls and suburban landscapes, with the odd bit of local fauna thrown in as a kind of post-facto context marker, all speak of a hybridisation of culture that is very interesting, and very Cape Town. For those who haven’t yet seen Dungeon Quest, I entreat you to seek out this book, and the sequels that follow. These are very funny books, if you like that kind of thing.

Let’s talk about the historical character of Hoggenheimer. What do we as a contemporary audience learn out of his story?

Hoggenheimer, invented circa 1910 by Daniel Boonzaier, has been with us ever since. He began as an anti-Semitic stereotype, grew into a generic stereotype for racial capitalism, has strong links to various international versions, such as the Weimar caricatures of George Grosz, and was reincarnated by William Kentridge as Soho Ekstein, the protagonist in his early films. He even appears in my own work as Y.T. Sharke, CEO of Toxacorp. What to learn from him? That pure greed rules the world and all the touchy-feely stuff pales by comparison when it comes to the naked exercise of power. We’re all going down the tubes while Hoggenheimer laughs!

DC Boonzaier - The Magnates Fear
D.C. Boonzaier’s cartoon featuring Hoggenheimer, left.

Objectively described, what is the purpose and function of a political illustration or cartoon?

“Objectively described”? As far as history is concerned, there’s no such thing as objectivity. There are approved stories and interpretations, a kind of group subjectivity, ranged around centres of power. And there are oppositional stories that challenge these. All cartooning, one way or another, is linked to a particular centre or nexus of power. Where power is contested, as in South Africa, cartoons play an important role in crystallising and giving visual or metaphorical shape to the most important areas of contestation. Check out Just for Kicks!, the latest compilation of the year’s best political cartoons (edited by John Curtis and myself) to see this process in action. The cartoonists have targeted all the key areas of contestation and given them symbolic shape.

Talking about the now, is Zapiro’s Rape of Justice cartoon really that scandalous when placed in a historical context? Have there not been other similarly contested cartoons in the past?

I’ve given this cartoon so much thought, read so much about it, heard so many opinions about it, and I still haven’t got to the bottom of it. It’s not so much that it’s scandalous. It’s way deeper than that. It strikes to the core of our predicament. And there are valid arguments on both sides. The issues of representation aren’t going to go away. If you’re not sure what I mean by this, look at Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993). A cartoon this powerful ceases to be the expression of an individual voice, if it ever was in the first place. It burrows down to the pit where these things are slugged out by archetypal figures wielding clubs, up to their knees in gore — like Conrad Botes’s cartoon versions of Goya’s Disasters of War.

Zapiro - The Rape of Justice

At your Cape Town book launch you and Zapiro spoke about the small number of black cartoonists. How is this changing?

Not fast enough. Especially in the field of political cartooning. The fact that the majority of political cartoonists are still white creates a huge credibility gap. A lot more needs to be done to remedy the situation. It’s definitely the biggest challenge facing South African cartooning at the moment.

How has cartooning evolved, formally and conceptually, as print media moves increasingly online?

There is so much happening online that unless you are seriously wired and digitally socially networked (which I’m not), it’s hard to keep track of what the hell’s going on. Take Moray Rhoda’s latest effort, Velocity, for example. Moray spent a lot of his own money a few years ago organising and publishing Cape Town based alternative comic anthologies such as Helix and Clockworx, featuring local artists like Daniel Hugo and Jesca Marisa. Then it all went pear-shaped and he went underground to lick his wounds. Now he’s back with Velocity, a very well organised South Africa/Australia digital comic collaboration. What’s great about this project is that it’s no longer about the finished product, but the entire process of comic making, as participants put their work in progress up on a group blog. What’s not great about it is how little originality there is on show — most of the stuff looks like it’s recycled from something else. It’s wonderful that the online environment provides so many opportunities for upcoming artist and writers to get their stuff out there; however, it’s really sad that most of it is so derivative. Maybe it’s because the South African guys want to get published internationally, but I don’t think I need to point out that local artists who have attracted the most international interest are the ones whose work has its own visual vernacular (to steal a phrase from Anton Kannemeyer). A South African visual vernacular – our own visual Antwoord, if you like – is what we need, online and on paper, if we want anyone to notice us.

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