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Knighted Zapiro’s pen mightier than the sword

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TALI FEINBERG

The award was presented by Aurélien Lechevallier, the French Ambassador to South Africa. He said Zapiro was bestowed the order because he shared, “the values that define and guide [the French] Republic. The trilogy equality, liberty, and fraternity resonate perfectly with who you are, what you believe in, and what you stand for.”

The award is intended to recognise significant contributions to the arts and literature, or the propagation of these fields.

“I’m still blown away. It really is overwhelming, it’s an award I never thought I would be getting, so it was a huge surprise,” says Shapiro, who made time to talk to the SA Jewish Report despite an intense schedule.

“It made me think about how the French are responsible for many of our concepts of democracy and freedom of expression. At the same time, the worst attack on cartoonists was in France in 2015 – five cartoonists and seven other people were killed in the terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo,” he says.

“There’s a strange correlation, because at the time in 2015 – although I didn’t know it – an assassination attempt was being planned to target me,” referring to alleged jihadists Thulsie twins Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee. He was on their hit list because he had drawn a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed in 2010.

Shapiro had planned to travel to Kenya around that time, but “I had a gut feeling it wasn’t safe. The Hawks read me a transcript of a guy the Thulsie twins had been in contact with saying that I was a legitimate target for assassination. They could have used small arms, explosives, or poison. And the person they were talking to was in Kenya. It’s had a huge impact … the extent of the connection.”

Shapiro says that in spite of the backlash he has received from all sectors of society in response to his cartoons, South Africa is one of the most liberal environments in the world for a cartoonist. Colleagues the world over have told him that some of his work could never be published in other democracies.

While this award can be seen as the height of his career, Shapiro says there is a lot more he wants to do. “I’m not tired of the work, and am keen to express my thoughts in other genres. There are also other things I would like to do with cartoons.” Launching his annual book is on the agenda, but he hints that other media and ventures are in the offing.

He says his Jewish identity has played a defining role in his outlook on the world. “My mother was a refugee of the Nazis. She managed to get out of Berlin in about 1938. She taught me that ‘never again’ means ‘never again for anyone, not just Jews’, and that’s an important lesson. Of course, the hugest atrocity was the Holocaust, and it’s all the more incumbent on Jews to look carefully at whether they are participating actively or passively in any form of oppression.”

His ambivalence to Israel is well-known, and he says that even family members haven’t taken kindly to it. “It was far easier to be a white anti-apartheid activist than to be a Jewish activist who supports Palestinian rights.”

But he is proudly Jewish, and says Jewish humour has been a “massive thing” for him. He has read extensively the work of Jewish cartoonists, writers, comedians, and artists from generations past.

A few years ago, he was invited to be on the TV series Who Do You think You Are? In each episode, a different celebrity goes on a journey to trace parts of her or his family tree. He found it fascinating to delve into his roots, and was proud to be the only Jew on the show.

Furthermore, in spite of being vilified, he feels part of the South African Jewish community. His children attended Herzlia, and he has addressed many audiences in Jewish settings.

Though his cartoons gives him a “watchdog” role, Shapiro has not lost hope in South Africa. “I’m primarily a sceptic, not a cynic. While it’s been a horrendous decade, I don’t like to indulge in the notion that that ‘everything is going to the trash’. I think that civil society, artists, writers, and the media have played a massive role in shifting things,” he says.

He currently works only for online news portal Daily Maverick, which he sees as playing a vital role in bringing down President Jacob Zuma and the Guptas. Pointing out that editor Branko Brkic is a refugee of Slobodan Milosevic, he believes Daily Maverick is a force for democracy in South Africa.”

Though recent developments like the return of Bathabile Dlamini to public office are discouraging, it gives Shapiro more subject matter to aim his “arrows” at. And while he says the economy needs a major turnaround to get back on its feet, “we have to believe it’s possible”.

Shapiro says he is honoured to be amongst past Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres winners like the late Johnny Clegg, William Kentridge, Susan Sontag, and Steven Spielberg. “It’s going to be daunting to live up to these names,” he concludes. He certainly has his work cut out for him.

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