South Africa


The funny thing about Tutu, a cartoonist’s remembrance

The funny thing about Tutu, a cartoonist’s remembrance
© AFRICARTOONS/JaM and 2Lani, Andy, Avi, Brandan, Chip, Derek Bauer, Dov Fedler, Dr Jack & Curtis, Findlay, Fred Mouton, Grogan, Jeff Rankin, Mangena, Mark Wiggett, Mgobhozi, Miles, Mothowagae, Nanda Soobben, Niel Van Vuuren, Qap’s Mngadi, Rico, Roberto Millan, Siwela, Stidy, Yalo, Zapiro.

It is little wonder that cartoonists the world over loved The Arch so much! Just days after his passing, thousands of people from presidents to paupers have eulogised the beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu and most have alluded to his wonderful sense of humour. He delivered his powerful activism with a healthy dose of wit in a manner that any editorial cartoonist would aspire to achieve. 

That he constantly stood up for the little guy in the face of oppression; apartheid tyranny, warmongers, the rampant HIV/AIDS epidemic, institutionalised and religious bigotry and a nation captured by its own liberators all served to ingratiate the Tiny Titan with cartoonists – most of whom also punch up in their advocacy. 

Thus; cartoons in which Tutu is the protagonist are very rarely critical of him; almost always taking his side in whichever cause he might be campaigning.

Besides; Tutu’s diminutive stature would suggest he couldn’t but punch up! 

Contrasting against his gigantic presence and dramatic gestures, his impish pluck was never lost on cartoonists who’ve loved to depict him in animated laughter or a rage of fury; standing up to his adversaries just as the proverbial David faced Goliath. 

His short physical stature plays perfectly to the comedic Mutt and Jeff device; in which a fiery shorter character is contrasted with a lanky one of calmer disposition; inviting a playful and often humorous interplay in which each has met their match. 

Oftentimes, Nelson Mandela has played Jeff to Tutu’s Mutt (“Tata and Tutu”), while in other cartoons it has been The Dalai Lama who has secured that role.  

Then there is the gift of the Arch’s ecclesiastical persona, which has brought with it a plethora of idioms and metaphors; manna from heaven for any cartoonist short in equal measure of time and concept. Oftentimes we find him navigating a moral compass, or leading his flock to greener pastures. In one cartoon he might be quieting the seas of despair, in another he is walking on water. In a more sombre one he’s seen mourning a loss. One moment he is singing the praises of those who do good, in another we see him preaching fire and brimstone to the sinful.

For forty years, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in all his many guises, provided inspiration for the cartoonist’s pen.

In a time when Mandela’s image was banned by the apartheid government, it was Tutu who came to be the caricatured voice and protagonist who stood up to the racist regime. 

By September 1989 the writing was – quite literally – on the wall for the ruling National Party: as anti-apartheid protests grew in number, so did the ways in which the police try to suppress them. Tired of protesters seeking refuge in the Arch’s cathedral, they concocted a plan to fill their water cannons with a purple dye so that the activists could be identified and arrested when they eventually came out. That they chose purple was ironic, because this is the colour by which The Arch is identified on account of his trademark purple cassock! 

Anyway, the police moved in on a sit-in; disrupting it with batons, teargas and the purple dye. People scattered, but one protester was able to gain control of the cannon and turn it on the police AND the National Party headquarters. Another protester who was amongst those who found refuge in the cathedral (where Tutu was addressing the protesters and calming them down) overheard a quip which was soon to become the stuff of liberation struggle folklore. 

Later, that night, armed with a purple spray can and a home crafted stencil he rode his ten speed bicycle back to the scene of the crime – terrified that he might be arrested by the police. The next day the city woke up to graffiti declaring: “The Purple Shall Govern!”. That Graffiti artist was none other than Cape Town cartoonist, Chip Snaddon

If cartoonists loved the Arch, by all accounts, he loved us. 

Zapiro, whose cartoons have documented Tutu more than most, has met with the icon on a number of occasions. Once, the cleric jokingly chastised the cartoonist, demanding to know why he drew his nose so big?           

My brief, yet unforgettable meeting with the Arch happened on Freedom Day in 2005; exactly 11 years into South Africa’s democracy. I had seen him speak on perhaps a half dozen occasions; most memorably at the inauguration of South Africa’s first democratic president in 1994, where he joined Nelson Mandela on that global stage and delivered a prayer over the proceedings. We were thousands strong, basking in the glory of that magnificent moment in the gardens of Pretoria’s Union Buildings.

But this time it was different as the capacity of the South African National Gallery in the Company Gardens in Cape Town only allowed 200 guests, and myself, my (then) girlfriend Michelle, and three of our good friends were fortunate enough to be amongst them. Tutu was to open Peter Magubane’s exhibition of 1950s photographs titled ‘Madiba: Man of Destiny’.       

I was wearing a favourite t-shirt depicting Mandela’s head beneath a halo, which prompted the Arch to improvise; “Some people think he is a living saint. I don’t know. I just know we’re damned lucky to have had him.

He then regaled us with stories about Mandela, including this favourite one: 

“I used to think Madiba was a close friend of mine until I told him he had abominable sartorial taste – those awful shirts of his! And he responded, ‘who do you imagine (would be) telling me about my shirts, but a man who wears skirts!’” 

We’d all heard the story before, but the delightful way in which it was told, punctuated by Tutu’s own infectious laughter, which jiggled his entire body, had everyone in hysterics. 

Dignity SA

That was when I was just starting out as a cartoonist. Ten years later, DignitySA, an organisation advocating for legalised euthanasia in South Africa approached me requesting the use of a cartoon that I had collaborated on with Dr Jack, in which we showed the Arch supporting this act of mercy despite a vocal backlash from religious conservatives. 

In the cartoon, Tutu is seen at the bedside of a dying patient being kept uncomfortably alive by a mountain of machinery. The cleric is holding a newspaper quoting his utterances in favour of euthanasia, while an ‘Anti-euthanasia Zealot’ screams at him in protest: “YOU CAN’T PLAY GOD!”. Tutu calmly replies; “What do you think you’re doing?” It’s a response that reflects the advice Tutu’s father once gave him… “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”

Cartoon credit: Dr Jack and Curtis, EWN.

We gifted the cartoon to DignitySA which they then arranged for the Archbishop to sign, and originals and copies were auctioned to raise funds and awareness for their #RightToDie campaign. The organisers told us that he loved the manner in which such a delicate and complicated subject was addressed with humour and with wit. I hope he knew that it was those qualities of his that served as inspiration for that cartoon and so many others. The power of humour in advocacy can not be understated. 

The organisers told us that he loved the manner in which such a delicate and complicated subject was addressed with humour and with wit. Photo: DignitySA

Tutu would also use humour with great effect to defuse animosity or discomfort…  

Melanie Verwoerd, former South African ambassador to Ireland, recalls his telling of how it came to pass that he was to meet Brigitte Bardot in heaven; a joke that converted an aggressive student audience into a standing ovation. 

And how, on another lighter occasion, he scolded Bono, who interrupted a prayer with a premature “Amen!” as the Arch was concluding it in Xhosa, only to continue with the prayer in Afrikaans. As that seemed to be drawing to a close, the Arch opened a warning eye to glance at Bono, cautioning him; “Not yet”, before continuing in English. As he concluded the prayer he looked at the rock star and said; “Now!” and Bono obliged with a final “Amen!”  

Verwoerd also tells of the time two scantily clad dancers mistakenly entered the function room where the Arch was her guest, and as the manager ushered them out an embarrassed silence fell upon the proceedings – until the Arch, assuming fake indignation, protested; “That was not very Christian to chase them out like that. We should invite them back for something to eat. They looked hungry.” 

We will all miss you, Arch. Your delightful joy and laughter will echo in our memories forever. 

But who amongst us can replicate your example and your advocacy? Let it be said that while you might have retired from this mortal coil, you will not be retired by the cartoonists of this world. Your image and example have come to exemplify the continuous fight for social justice. And so, just as with campaigners of similar stature who have gone before you, you will enjoy an afterlife of bit parts and leading roles in our cartoons of the future. DM/MC

Michelle and John Curtis with Archbishop Tutu. Photo: Kathy Hearn

John Curtis is a South African editorial cartoonist, currently based in London. He is the Founding Director of, an organisation promoting the art of cartooning and protecting the rights of cartoonists in Africa. Africartoons also hosts the largest repository of editorial cartoons from the continent in its archives, including hundreds featuring Archbishop Desmond Tutu.


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