The Unbearable Lightness of a Coolie Cartoonist. By Nanda Soobban, Published in 2014 in Top Magazine.

As an anti-apartheid cartoonist, I knew my place and I knew my audience.  Come to think of it, in those days I was basically preaching to the converted.

As a cartoonist, you don’t just want to draw well and make a funny remark or punchline, which is the hallmark of a good cartoon, you want to do a cartoon to help bring about change. You want to use your pen as a weapon, whilst some people you knew were taking up alternative means!

No matter how good you felt your cartoons were, you always felt they were wasted on an already converted audience!  What you needed was the platform of a mainstream newspaper where the audience could laugh at the humour yet disagree with your point of view!

During apartheid if a certain audience did get to see your cartoon and disagreed with your point of view, then you were in serious trouble!!

How I longed for a free press in a free society where I could do a cartoon where everyone could have a good laugh and still debate the merits of it, without me having to run for cover.  Yes I did run and I experienced the freedom of painting provocative murals and cartoons to an appreciative audience in both Brazil and the United States.

How I longed to come back to a free South Africa and to practise this very specialised skill.  When I did come back to the ‘new’ South Africa, I worked as a mainstream cartoonist for the Independent On Saturday and The Daily News in KwaZulu Natal.  It was a tight rope.

The country was governed by the ANC and KwaZulu Natal was governed by the IFP.  The papers were meant for the English Colonists of The Last Outpost and the biggest readers of these papers were the Indian community who lived in the province.

It was a tough balancing act, but I picked on anyone, regardless of race or political affiliation.Mandela was president and the ‘Rainbow Nation” looked very promising and heart-warming.

There seemed to be a slight shift when Thabo Mbeki became president.  There seemed to be a sense of intolerance.

I was being questioned by political cronies…”why are you always picking” on the president and Manto Tshabalala!!  I took that with a pinch of salt and saw them as being frivolous, and that’s what they were.  Nothing serious.

When Zuma became president, there was a dramatic shift.  There is nothing wrong with a cartoonist picking on a politician or a president of a country.  But with the Zuma presidency, it was a whole new “ballgame”!  A trivial cartoon questioning the president on some mundane matter would be seen as racist!  There was a certain kind of defensive attitude. It wasn’t like you were questioning a certain policy or asking for service delivery or talking about the economy…they made it out to be as if you were making a personal attack on the president!

The email threats and insults were getting frequent yet the cartoons were run of the mill stuff, no different from the stuff I did before. Damn, I even picked on Mandela and no one complained!  I started getting the message when I was asked to stick to sports cartoons.

Never mind the vicious threats of bodily harm that sometimes came my way, the loss of lucrative advertising revenue seem to have been the only concern of the editors and owners of the newspaper.

The Daily News which had the legacy of Jock Leyden, one of the greatest cartoonist in the world for over 60 years before I came in for another 10 years.  It’s a tragic shame, when you open the Daily News and you don’t see a cartoon.  It is a great disservice and an insult to the readers who grew up with their dosage of Jock Leyden every day.

Censorship is not only brought about by crooked governments…they are also perpetuated by scared editors and greedy owners of newspapers, who don’t want to lose lucrative government business.  The situation gets worse when government cronies actually buy off newspapers to suit their own needs

As for Zuma the painting by Brett Murray and all the cartoons about him should be the window to a Bigger Picture!!??


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