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A president, a shower head, and freedom of expression in South Africa

Five years ago, a cartoonist started drawing Jacob Zuma crowned with a shower head to lampoon Zuma's testimony in a rape trial. Today, some South Africans think the joke is harmful.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / July 22, 2011

South African President Jacob Zuma reacts after meeting former South African President Nelson Mandela for lunch as part of Nelson Mandela birthday celebrations at his home in Qunu, South Africa, on July 18.

Schalk van Zuydam/AP

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Johannesburg, South Africa

It would appear that South African President Jacob Zuma is really “done with” having a shower head sticking out of his head, at least in newspaper cartoons. But the debate over those cartoons has exposed deep divisions within South African society – often along racial lines – over how far citizens should push limits of free expression.

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The story of how Mr. Zuma came to have a shower head affixed to his skull is well known to all South Africans. South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (known by his nomme de plume of “Zapiro”) first drew a cartoon of Zuma with a shower head attached, after Zuma – who had just lost his position as deputy president of South Africa under then President Thabo Mbeki – testified in court during a 2006 rape trial that he had, in fact, had unprotected sex with a young woman whom he knew had HIV. To protect himself from contracting HIV himself, he said, he had taken a shower quickly afterward. (Zuma was later acquitted of all rape charges.)

Last December, Mr. Zuma filed a 5 million rand ($740,000) defamation lawsuit against Zapiro for damaging Zuma's reputation with his cartoons. He has a separate lawsuit for 2 million rand ($290,000) against Zapiro for “injury to his dignity.”

On Wednesday, a government-funded body called the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Communities issued a call for Zapiro to stop portraying the president with the shower head. The commission also condemned a 2008 Zapiro cartoon of Zuma (with shower head) preparing to rape the allegorical figure of Lady Justice (with blindfold).

"This type of gutter attack on a president duly and democratically elected by a handsome majority of the people of South Africa does not contribute to nation building and social cohesion, which is a constitutional ideal,” the commission said in a statement. "Mr. Shapiro displays an unbelievable insensitivity to cultural sensibilities of all decent-minded people. His cartoons on the president appear to be calculated to attack the psyche of a people emerging from a shameless past in which successive oppressive regimes ruled."

The commission's members are prominent civic and religious leaders, rather than political figures, but its viewpoints are thought to reflect those of the ruling African National Congress.

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