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Justice Mogoeng and Zapiro: political satire of character assassination

Paul Berkowitz: studied economics, maths stats. Worked at Econometrix, FNB, Wits. Interested in South African politics, economics.

Zapiro drew President Zuma rewarding his “lapdog” Justice Mogoeng with the position of Chief Justice. PAUL BERKOWITZ, a huge Zapiro fan, doesn’t think much of this as political commentary. 

The cartoonist Zapiro drew this cartoon in response to the announcement of Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng as President Jacob Zuma’s choice for the new Chief Justice. Without putting too fine a point on it, Mogoeng is depicted as a dog: begging on his (hind) legs, arms fixed in supplication, tongue hanging out of his mouth.  Zuma is tickling him playfully (yet vigorously) under his chin while his other hand holds the leash tied around Mogoeng’s neck. The showerhead atop Zuma peers down at his twin on Mogoeng’s head. In the background, yet still towering above the man-and-his-dog tableau, stands Justice Moseneke, imperious, stoical, granite-faced. His acumen and achievements have been given physical form in the heavy bundles of books and papers that he is carrying. The message is as subtle as blue eyeshadow at Loftus: loyalty is being rewarded over merit, Mogoeng obeys his master’s voice.    

What is my position on Zapiro? I am a huge fan and consider him to be one of the finest political cartoonists in the world.  I’ve defended some of his most controversial cartoons on Israel, on the Mohammed furore and on South Africans of all stripes. I enjoy, identify with and endorse the vast majority of his work. There have been a few of his pictures that have offended me and others where I just don’t agree with the sentiment. 

He is world-class though. As I looked at his latest picture, another world-class act played in the background. A young Lauren Hill was ripping her mic with the Fugees. Zapiro and Lauren, on their day, can freak your style with no rehearsal. 

The comparison might not be fair, because Lauren’s star has been on the wane for a while, while Zapiro’s continues to burn. Lauren’s last few years have been characterised by poor solo material, erratic behaviour at public performances and repeated accusations of unprofessional, prima-donna behaviour. Zapiro spent the last few years winning international awards and filling Christmas stockings. While Lauren is fighting lawsuits from former band members, Zapiro remains the gold standard of political commentary.

This cartoon falls far short of that standard – it may in fact be my least-favourite cartoon of his to date. In contrast to his normal scalpel-sharp analysis, this was a hatchet job. Mogoeng is painted as a sycophant, an obedient servant of the president who is being rewarded for his pliancy. This is juxtaposed with the self-professed independent thinker that is Moseneke, punished for his principles.

It’s true that the recommendation of Mogoeng was controversial and has many detractors. Mogoeng has been accused of lacking experience, of having the wrong kind of experience, and of having handed down questionable judgements. These could all be valid arguments.  There is definitely bad blood between Moseneke and Zuma, dating back to Zuma’s corruption trial, and Zuma’s non-recommendation of Moseneke may be payback. But Zapiro has tried to force a square peg into a round hole by casting Mogoeng as an active and willing agent in this saga. In the process he has engaged in a bit of character assassination.

He’s not the only one. Others have bundled their criticism of Mogoeng’s religious views together with his judgements, which, while less offensive still constitute ad hominem attacks. The question of whether or not Mogoeng is the right person for the job should not be reduced to whether or not we identify with his personal beliefs and values system, unless these clearly conflict with the Constitution. His handling of the case of the woman dragged behind her boyfriend’s car is shocking, and is a black mark against him. His belief in a higher power is not. 

The cartoon is also contradicted by recent developments in the story. It appears that Mogoeng was not top of Zuma’s list at all which deals a blow to the jobs-for-pals narrative of Zapiro. It seems that a Zuma presidency and Moseneke as Chief Justice cannot coexist in the same universe, but none of that is Mogoeng’s doing. Mogoeng’s crime, if you can call it that, seems to be accepting what is looking more and more like a poisoned chalice than an award for excellence. Nobody, Zapiro included, knows what his personal motives may be for accepting the nomination. Personal ambition? A desire to help bring an end to this sorry tale? It’s not clear.

There is a much bigger story playing out than Mogoeng. The longer the issue of a new Chief Justice remains unresolved, the greater the toll on the Constitutional Court. Many of his colleagues appear to be defending Moseneke by refusing nominations. Other judges may be making decisions based on personal ambitions. This can only contribute towards distracting the judges from their work at best and to factionalism and mistrust at worst. Mogoeng now sits with a nomination that he probably didn’t ask for and might not want, while his past professional and personal life is being judged in the court of popular opinion. 

With the benefit of a weekend of new developments, it’s easy to attack Zapiro for being off-base. But this cartoon feels like a variation on a theme which has become common in Zapiro’s recent work; that of a Zuma administration perverted by patronage and protectionism, of minions doing the dirty work for the president and being rewarded with a few scratches under the chin. It may be true that this is how Zuma operates some, or most, of the time. That doesn’t automatically taint the person on the receiving end of his appointments.

Mogoeng may not be the right person for the job at this time. He certainly didn’t deserve the treatment he received, and Zapiro might consider revising his one-size-fits-all approach. As Lauren Hill told us, before she started to fade, you might win some but you just lost one. DM

Watch more:

  • The Fugees ‘How Many Mics’, on Youtube.

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