Zapiro is South Africa’s most celebrated cartoonist. His penetrating cartoons hold the country’s power brokers to account, lampooning everyone from former president Nelson Mandela to the late cricket star Hansie Cronje. His work has been featured in the BBC and The New York Times and he has won numerous awards. Zapiro’s cartoons have also come with a cost. He has received multiple death threats and he has been sued for over R20 million (roughly $3 million) for his scathing comics about President Jacob Zuma’s alleged involvement in an arms scandal and his rape trial. Despite these travails, he has remained a passionate champion of freedom of expression and an active member of South African PEN. We spoke with Zapiro about cartooning in South Africa, freedom of expression, his influences, and the vibrant new cartooning scene. For more Zapiro cartoons visit:

FREEDOM TO WRITE: What are some of the trends affecting cartoonists in South Africa?

ZAPIRO: This is not a happy question for me to answer. During apartheid, I lived in America for two years and it struck me that South African activists had strong direction, but we lacked diversity. We didn’t know that apartheid was in the process of ending because negotiations between the African National Congress (ANC) and the government were held in secret, activists were marching in the same direction—against the government. I myself lost focus during the transition from apartheid. Then in 1993, as we moved towards a democratic South Africa, I again felt tremendous direction. There was the sense that as a cartoonist you could be critical. Mandela became the head of government and he understood that the country needed satirists. He gave cartoonists that space—he actually encouraged me personally, which was very exciting. There was a tolerance for criticism in the new South Africa, but that shifted under Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki’s aloofness meant that critics were treated as enemies, and I began to feel myself painted as an enemy. Then there was a further shift away from tolerance when Mbeki and President Jacob Zuma started to go at each other’s throats for leadership of the ANC. Now there is this great onslaught against the media and its roots are in that period.FTW: You’ve been very involved with activism related to the Secrecy Bill and other legislation that impacts freedom of expression. 

ZAPIRO: I drew a cartoon (above) which appeared in The Times, a daily paper. It’s a strong, simple protest cartoon against the Secrecy Bill. In the piece, Zuma represents the government and the ANC, and he’s painting out “DEMOCRACY” with a big roller and he has a little can of black paint that reads “SECRECY.” The cartoon flew around the social networks. Other cartoonists spun off it, publishing black or almost black cartoons. My next cartoon was almost totally black because everyone was so outraged by the bill. But I didn’t want to publish a completely blacked-out cartoon; I wanted to leave the sense of something else happening in the image.

FTW: And hopefully save some toner at the printers.

ZAPIRO: (laughs) There’s that, and there’s always that strange feeling when drawing a cartoon like this that it’s a cop-out and you’re getting out of work. I once did another black cartoon when South Africa suffered from energy blackouts, which basically said, “Fuck Eskom,” the power company. You can only do that sort of thing once.

FTW: You’ve been the target of costly libel suits filed by President Jacob Zuma. Do you see a connection between the repressive climate you described and these suits?

ZAPIRO: As paranoid as Thabo Mbeki was, he had the good sense not to sue satirists. He filed a couple of suits related to HIV/AIDS, because that was the particular bee in his bonnet around AIDS denialism. The Sunday Times, for example, was sued around the publication of the medical records of former health minister Manto TshabalalaMsimang, which had revealed her alcohol binge while recovering in a hospital. Zuma took it to a new level. In 2006, when his rape trial ended and he was acquitted, he sued seven or eight entities, including myself, for a total R63 million (roughly $9 million in 2006), and I was sued for R15 million (roughly $2.15 million) of that amount. 

FTW: This was for your Rape of Lady Justice cartoon?

ZAPIRO: No, it was for three other cartoons and represented double the amount that any cartoonist had ever been sued for at the time. That lawsuit has gradually faded—Zuma hasn’t rescinded the suit—but in 2008 Zuma sued me a second time for R7 million for the Lady Justice cartoon. This was a much more highly charged suit because the cartoon was a top story in newspapers and television. It shows Zuma about to rape Lady Justice who is being held down by four of his key allies. It’s about how they were bullying and coercing the judiciary to drop corruption charges against Zuma so he could become president. Zuma’s libel suit against me for this cartoon is set to go to court on August 28, 2012.

FTW: What is your involvement with South African PEN?

ZAPIRO: I certainly support PEN but I’m not involved in a central way. I’m a member because I’m an activist at heart. I gave a talk on behalf of PEN about Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in July 2011.

FTW: Some of your cartoons are especially critical about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and have been considered anti-Israel. Yet you yourself are Jewish.

ZAPIRO: These cartoons can be viewed as anti-Israel, but they are really anti-oppression. Many groups of people oppressed Jews over the centuries. I feel that Jews, as a people who are no longer oppressed, must take a long hard look at ourselves and ask, “Are we doing what other people once did to us?” I learned to ask that question from my mother, who was a refugee. I wouldn’t call her a holocaust survivor because her family managed to leave Nazi Germany in the beginning of 1938 and had the resources to get out. Growing up, the message we received was that “never again” means never again for anyone, not just Jews. By this, I am not making a direct comparison between Palestine and the holocaust but I am speaking of oppression and the neo-fascist approach by Israel towards governing Palestinians. I think those comparisons are justified. Also, growing up South African, my siblings and I would make connections between the Jews in Egypt, blacks in South Africa, and Palestinians in Israel, which didn’t always go over well with my extended family. 

FTW: You studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York under Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the holocaust graphic novel Maus. How did this experience shape you?

ZAPIRO: When reading Maus, I was blown away by Spiegelman’s humanity and his ability to tap into the story of his family and tell it in graphic form. It was absolute genius. Marjane Satrapi, the author of Persepolis, has also managed to create some wonderful work in this way. I spent a semester of independent study with Spiegelman, but I wasn’t influenced by his political views so much as his ability to create graphic storytelling. At the time I was interested in portraying the history of South Africa. He taught me, I think successfully, that you can’t just show history, you must make people care for the characters to help them understand the broader narrative.

FTW: Your editorial cartoons tend to be one panel, but there seems to be a narrative being told from day to day or week to week. Yet you don’t use the long-form sequential narrative approach of Spiegelman’s Maus. Have you considered creating a project like that?

ZAPIRO: I work as an editorial cartoonist, but I did have a period during the transition from apartheid when I did some long-form work—three educational comic books. They were on AIDS, child abuse prevention, and democracy. So I was able to use the sequential drawing skills I’d learned in New York.

FTW: Are there other emerging cartoonists in South Africa that should be watched right now?

ZAPIRO: There certainly are. The whole face of cartooning in South Africa has changed enormously in the last decade. We have a fantastic comic strip that has been running in South Africa since the early ’90s called Madam & Eve, by Stephen Francis and Rico. They are still consistently drawing very strong, very interesting, and very funny work. During apartheid, there were few opportunities for black cartoonists to work. There were a few people who tried but they didn’t get much support from the media or from publishers. Editors occasionally tried to feature black cartoonists, but didn’t publish them to any great extent. During the last few years, Andy Mason has mentored a number of young cartoonists and two exciting new cartoonists have come out of his studio. One is SifisoYalo at the Sowetan and the other is Themba Siwela in The Citizen. They’re both strong young cartoonists. Brandan Reynolds at Business Day is already well-established. There are a number of others. Wilson Mgobhozi in the Independent group, Bethuel Mangena in the Sowetan Sunday World, and Jeremy Nell in Cape Town. As you’ll hear from some of the names, the majority of the young up-and-coming cartoonists are black.  

This is the second in a two-part series. See PEN’s annotated retrospective of selected Zapiro cartoons hereAll photos © Zapiro. Please visit for more information.