Jonathan Shapiro aka Zapiro

Political Cartoonist and Visual Columnist

Jonathan Shapiro is better known by his pen name is Zapiro. An editorial and political cartoonist he has been actively sharing his message for 35 year. The first 10 years as an activist who became a cartoonist, and the rest as a cartoonist commentator and visual satirist.

As a four year old Zapiro had struggled with nightmares and his Mother, realising that he was a budding artist and interested in what he was enduring suggested that he draw what he sees. This he did, recreating the wild, toothy and spikey monsters that were visiting him in his dreams. The exercise helped him overcome his fears. By the age of 6/7 he was drawing himself as fireman and a clown in art competitions at school. He progressed to the adventures of Tintin and the humour of Tintin, with more comics added to the fold.

That said Zapiro’s political involvement was predestined and his viewpoints have always defined him. ‘I can ascribe that to my mother who was very politically aware although not always politically involved. She was a refugee of the Nazis and to her the message of ‘Never Again’ meant not only never again for the Jews, but for all people.’ She had always been a strong Jewish activist and imparted that on Jonathan and his siblings, doing a very good job of it. When he was 8 years old and Verwoed was assassinated, Jonathan understood that there was something deeply wrong with the country and with Verwoerd and started to look for kindred spirits at school who might agree. But there weren’t any.

Comics and cartoons are what excited me when I was a child and in my office today are books and comics that remain from those years. I would spend hours poring over my parents collection, specifically the Giles annuals, looking at the covers and absorbing every work. I saw the action happening in the drawings, the drama in the pics and I started drawing too.

Already deeply influenced, by the time he was 11 years old he was driving an attempted boycott on the school’s Republic Day celebration. As a teenager Jonathan started to understand that there were ways to express feelings and politics with cartoons, a turning point for him, yet he lost confidence as he didn’t quite know how to be a political cartoonist in Apartheid South Africa.

At a time when white males were being conscripted, Jonathan changed directions and decided to study architecture to stay out of the army, but it didn’t really work and could no longer be avoided. He went into the army, yet refused to carry a gun – already defined himself and his strong stance.

‘Pre Democracy I was at risk as a white activist, far less risk than that of black activists and civilians, although there were many who went beyond what I was doing and got tortured – and killed for it. I learnt how to screen printing and produced guerrilla posters that I placed all over the city, causing alarm. I was arrested more than once, that is standard for being an activist. Beaten up and detained without trial by the security police – a standard thing in 1988 – seeing me spend 11 days in prison, 5 of them in solitary confinement.’

Today a visual commentator, Jonathan still has a strong feeling for newspapers, ordering in all that he can and finding the rest on line. ‘I like the idea that people cut out my cartoons and have them yellowing on their fridge.’ Keeping up with current affairs he listens to the radio, watches TV and follows live broadcasts, remaining constantly tuned in.

By the age of 23 I felt that I wanted to be an activist, I wanted to do something, and that is when the trouble started. It was a tough time, many of the things I did were banned, but it was equally fascinating and very inspiring too.

‘I really like that in South Africa we have a huge among of freedom of expression. I know that it hasn’t always been this way with censoring, backlisting, and media control, but generally people are able to speak out. This can be over the top, especially on social media where there is a viciousness – yet in terms of my own work as a cartoonist I am able to publish what would never be allowed elsewhere.’

Can satire through cartoons bring about a positive or negative message? ‘Primarily positive as we are shining a light on it. Even when doing something harshly we are at least showing it, allowing people the opportunity to make their own connections. Some of them have been hard to create, yet I needed to get the message out.’

Time with Zapiro allows him to share some of his endless stories of the interesting people he has met. ‘One of the most incredible moments for me was receiving a phone call from Nelson Mandela. I had met him and had interactions with him, and in 1998 while sitting in my studio when my wife said “it’s the President’s office on the line” and I was told to wait for President Mandela. I thought that friends of mine were messing with me. Soon realising that it really was Mandela who was upset that my cartoons would no longer be in the Cape Argus. He liked seeing my cartoons every day. I was doing 4 days a week in the Soweto and they were being reprinted in the Cape Argus in Cape Town so he could see them while down. Yet with the change this would no longer be possible.’

‘I said to him – ‘I am impressed that you called me up yourself, and I questioned that he would want to see my cartoons as they had become more and more critical of the ANC. Mandela responded – “that is your job” and in that moment it affirmed everything that I was and am meant to do.’

‘Over the years I seem to have gone from being a cartoonist to a sometimes talking head that gets to meet incredible people around the world, over shared tales and at events with the likes of Richard Gere and Nadine Gordimer, in groups with Peter Gabriel and Sharon Stone.’ In his office are the figurines of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu – who Zapiro always depicts to be walking on water.

Born in Cape Town in 1958, the city holds a multifaceted fascination. ‘I love the place and the scenery and do a lot of walking in the mountains and cycling, which allows me to be immersed in the natural environment. At the same time it is desperately frustrating as in the 80’s it was more open and integrated, but Cape Town in the democratic era seems to have retrogressed into an island of something old, something that does seem to be breaking down.’