Schalk van Zuydam/AP
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.

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.

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.

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.

In an interview Wednesday with the Mail and Guardian weekly newspaper, one of the papers that carry Zapiro’s cartoons, Mr. Shapiro said he had no intention of removing the shower head.

If Zuma and his supporters are outraged by Zapiro’s cartoons, "I am outraged by the unethical actions and statements of Jacob Zuma in his insatiable pursuit of power," Shapiro said. He argues that the South African constitution specifically protects free expression, a position backed up by the South African Commission for Human Rights when it rejected a complaint against Zapiro for his “rape” cartoon.

On talk radio station 702 FM, callers feverishly debated the cartoon issue. Most, but not all, black South African callers thought the cartoons were disrespectful and should be halted. Most, but not all, white South Africans defended the right of Zapiro to his pointed brand of satire.

Stephen Grootes, a prominent news reporter here, shot down many of the main arguments against Zapiro’s cartoons in a column in the Daily Maverick. But he said that the larger issue may be one of sensitivity to the feelings of South Africa’s black majority.

It’s easy, as a journalist, a member of the chattering classes, to simply be a cheerleader for Zapiro. It’s fun, he’s bloody good and he is killingly funny. But we mustn’t forget that this stuff only appeals to a small sector of our population. There is a large group of people, perhaps a majority, who do find this deeply offensive. It’s not only unfunny, it’s hurtful. These are people, and this is a very legitimate point of view, who feel that the person who was elected president deserves respect, if only by virtue of the position he occupies. He is the symbol our country and thus should not be shown too much disrespect.

But Mr. Grootes argues that this is not a reason for Zapiro to stop. Rather, he says that Zapiro should respond to the commission's statement with an open letter of his own "that justifies why it is still important to keep the shower on the head. It would be a really good start to a debate we should have."

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