The Power of Political Cartoons

How political cartoons communicate to an audience and take protest further than words and actions can. 

South African history often reflects the violence and pain stemming from the injustice of the Apartheid regime that ended in 1994. During this period, strict government policies gagged the majority of the people from opposing the discrimination they were experiencing. At this time many other forms of protest emerged that transformed the way people fought for their freedom. In a society where there was a strong history of silence and suppression, visual protest has been the most powerful method of resistance. George Orwell’s observation that, ‘In a time of universal deceit—telling the truth is a revolutionary act’,1 indicates the significance of revealing a truth that is often hidden by propaganda and political concealment. Through his satirical and political cartoons, Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) has exercised this act of revolutionary truth-telling. Today Zapiro continues to inform and educate the public, and he even outrages the subjects he critically mocks. Using the medium of cartooning, he has taken the act of protest further than simple words and actions could. 

One of the many controversial cartoons Zapiro has drawn was of the President of the time, P.W. Botha. The cartoon, entitled Laughter in the Belly of the Beast (1988), was part of an exhibition of Zapiro’s cartoons which satirically challenged the Apartheid system in South Africa. 

In this work, P.W. Botha, depicted as a purple, disproportioned reptile, sits on a throne furnished with skulls. Embedded into this seat is the date 1948, the year the National Party came into power and governed South Africa. These small, yet significant symbols are placed throughout the image. The beast rubs his stomach as laughter ripples from the obese part of his figure. This image of a deep heavy laughter that is uncontrollable shows the vindictive persona of the subject. Zapiro has exaggerated Botha’s facial features into a tight menacing expression that resembles the former president. On Botha’s head sits a crown detailed with a Nazi swastika, and around his neck lies the state president medal. In the background Zapiro has drawn the police as pigs scurrying around. The landscape shows a dark ominous volcanic land where there is desolation. Though this portrayal of society shows a monstrous dictator and his minions causing a hellish land, there is a small sign of hope. Two small fists are raised from behind the middle pillar, one is waving a flag, and both are shouting ‘viva’. 

As a result of this cartoon Zapiro was detained for eleven days. The night he took down his exhibition he was woken at 3:30am by security police.2 Acts of expression against the government were suppressed by the reigning political force. When Zapiro was interrogated by the security police, they asked him why he drew them as pigs. He answered ‘I draw what I see’.3 Through this work one can see how he educates those around him by boldly and critically mocking the structure of society. 

Zapiro has used the power of his pen to reveal the flaws within the system of government. The powerful images that he produced were a vehicle of protest. The truth revealed in Zapiro’s sketches is portrayed openly to the viewer, yet smaller references and symbols are hidden throughout his pieces, such as the Swastika embedded into the crown that P.W. Botha wears and the small fists of protest appearing from behind the pillar in the cartoon. Through this he reformed the ideas of many South Africans by lifting the veil that obstructed the move towards equality. Zapiro’s cartoons are a powerful tool for conveying political ideas. The ability to undermine authority and poke fun at institutions is a skill that carefully condenses complex ideas and opinions into a simple image that speaks to people in a way no action or word can. 

The simple images found within our newspapers can hold a stronger capacity than the printed columns of text. Through pictorial expression, people gain a sense of identity with the image, and are able to decipher the meaning of what is surrounding them and how they can seek to alter it. This collective identity can serve to bind communities and provide relief from the sense of frustration and desolation that can pervade a political movement when it meets with forceful opposition. A cartoon functions to create a community—the type of unity that is created by this form of satirical artwork informs, educates and outrages. As Zapiro’s work (and detention) demonstrates, an insightful cartoon has the capability to produce the power of the image. 

In South Africa, cartoons have been a potent vehicle of protest, and a prominent tool in binding dissenting communities together, despite the often immovable opposition from the Apartheid government. As Zapiro’s cartoons show, these potent images sprawled across the newspaper were more than just humorous diversions, they were a powerful means of political expression and the voice of the silenced within South African society. While political movements need to operate on a variety of levels in order to be successful, a cartoon can act as a lightning rod, instigating the change that is needed to move towards a more fair society. Cartoons can be seen to be the place where art and life overlap most powerfully and that take protest further than actions and words can. As Zapiro shows us, when humour and truth are brought together visually, they can be a very difficult weapon to defeat.

Zapiro, Laughter in the belly of the beast, 1988. From Zapiro, The Mandela Files, 2008.

notes: 

1. George Orwell, 1984, Signet Classics, 1950.
2. Zapiro, The Mandela Files, Double Storey Books Juta Company, Cape Town, 2009.
3. Zapiro, ibid. See also www.zapiro.com