If you are reading this, then you have likely seen today’s Zapiro cartoon. If you haven’t, you can see it on Daily Maverick. I’m not going to reproduce it here, both because I haven’t asked for permission to do so, and because some folk who I hope to engage via this post might think it’s needlessly provocative to do so.

The headline image is instead from a previous cartoon, which both caused offense, and which I have permission to republish.

The cartoon in question depicts a member of the Gupta family (presumably Atul Gupta) unbuttoning his trousers, as President Zuma buttons his, with Zuma telling Gupta “she’s all yours, boss”, as various state organs hold a woman representing South Africa (she’s dressed in the national flag) down in order to be raped.

This is a variation on a previous Zapiro cartoon, and is reportedly the 6th version of this cartoon. The first one depicted Zuma raping Lady Justice, in reference to the numerous legal charges he has so far avoided or been found innocent of.

Zuma sued Zapiro for R 5 Million Rand, later reduced to R 100 000 and an “unconditional apology”. Even later, the suit was dropped, with Zapiro calling the end to the lawfare “a great victory for freedom of expression and for satire and for comment”.

There have been a range of responses to the cartoon, ranging from an end of the spectrum which argues that images of or allusions to rape should never be used to make some broader point, all the way through to people claiming that it’s exactly the horror of rape that makes this cartoon a legitimate and effective critique of Zuma.

What I want to do here is to interrogate some of the underlying arguments, in full awareness that bits of what I say are going to meet with someone’s disapproval. But the difficult things to talk about are often the most important to talk about, so here we go…

  • First, this is not about freedom of speech. I haven’t seen anyone (although Zuma or one of his spokespersons might well provide a counterexample, soon) calling for this sort of cartoon to be made illegal. The issues are whether this is wise, effective, overly insensitive, and so forth. Few sensible folk dispute that you are free to be an ass – the issue is more whether that’s a good thing to be.
  • Yes, the cartoon is shocking. I was taken aback by it, and I’m notoriously (?) enamored of abstract engagement rather than emotional engagement. But the mere fact that something is shocking does not yet demonstrate that it’s effective in conveying its intended meaning.
  • Zuma is to my mind reprehensible, a parasite on the nation, and an (as yet) un-convicted criminal. I believed this before I saw the cartoon, and the cartoon added no data to that. But more to the point here, I strongly doubt that it would have served the purpose of making that point more plausible to anyone who didn’t already believe it.
  • This makes it more likely an example of an opportunistic jab at Zuma and his supporters, which will serve to confirm the biases of both the anti-Zuma crowd, while simultaneously confirming the biases of those who are pro-Zuma, who might see this as grossly offensive, unfair, and the like. In short, it’s probably counterproductive.
  • Just as it’s not about free speech, it’s not about plagiarism. Zapiro is perfectly entitled to recycle his metaphors, even if you might consider doing so to be lazy. He’s not trying to pass this off as anything but another iteration of a theme, and he knows that we know the earlier versions of the cartoon.
  • But now, the tricky things: can one ever use rape to make a point about “state capture”, and the apparent reality that Zuma is a self-enriching, corrupt, and deceitful pawn of foreign interests (whether that be Putin, the Gupta’s, or both?).
  • Let’s think about why not. Because it’s a particularly heinous crime? This doesn’t seem sustainable – surely murder, torture, or genocide are worse, and we don’t see the same reaction to cartoons depicting those. Rape seems uniquely out-of-bounds. Why?
  • It can’t only be in cases where men are commenting, because men also get raped. Sure, they are raped less frequently, but for consistency’s sake, we’d then also have to be outraged by or disallow cartoons by (for example) white men depicting genocide, because they are less frequently the victims of that than other people are.
  • Rape is brutal, degrading and traumatic, as Kate Wilkinson said on Twitter earlier today. Yes, but that doesn’t answer any of the questions regarding its uniqueness, unless we in general disallow or have equally censorious responses to cartoons that depict other brutal, degrading and traumatic events.
  • There’s no arms-race of trauma – or there shouldn’t be. I don’t see how anyone gets to “rank” trauma in terms of what’s bad enough that it can’t be the subject of a cartoon versus what’s bad but can be depicted in a cartoon. On the latter model, you’re certainly going to find some people who are greatly offended, but might lack the voice or platform to say so. It can’t just be a matter of convention that some things are beyond the pale, and others not.
  • None of this is relevant to the question of whether an empathetic satirist, concerned with getting his or her message across, would or would not choose a particular subject by which to make their point.

As I’ve said, I think this cartoon doesn’t make the point – or rather, it makes a point that’s already known, and has already been made. And that’s why it lacks empathy, because it exploits suffering without adding any value. This is however not a consequence of the theme, but a consequence of the fact that he’s made this theme into a cliché.

Turning rape into a cliché certainly seems offensive to me. But as an independent issue, using it as a metaphor to depict the abuse Zuma is perpetrating on the nation isn’t obviously so.