Famed cartoonist Jonathan “Zapiro” Shapiro has received a top French cultural award in recognition of his contribution to the arts.
On Wednesday, French Ambassador to South Africa Aurélien Lechevallier bestowed upon him the Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters.
“In him, France wants to give recognition to an artist, a friend, but also a freedom fighter who shares the values of the French Republic,” he said.
He said cartoonists always played with fire.
“And when I say fire, I refer to all its meanings. One mistake and a bonfire is lit. One step across the border and the dragon of censorship is awake. Once step back, you burn the idea. One step aside and the anger of the mob is biting you.
“Three steps away from the politically correct, and you may unleash the fury of the government and the faithful servants of the moral laws. If you are too harsh, you create pain. And if you are too blunt, you cause suffering. Too clear, you are not funny anymore.”
Zapiro, 61, said it was such a surprise when he found out about the award.
“It’s an incredible honour and not something that one ever thinks about,” he said.
“The more I thought about it, the more appropriate and wonderful it felt for me as some of the very precepts of freedom of expression and democracy that we were fighting for, were developed in France.”
Zapiro is well-known for his often controversial cartoons, including about Lady Justice and former president Jacob Zuma.
In 2008, the Sunday Times published a cartoon depicting Zuma with a showerhead attached to his head, unbuckling his pants ready to rape Lady Justice. It shows him being egged on by then-ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, while then-alliance leaders Julius Malema, Zwelinzima Vavi and Blade Nzimande pin her to the ground.
In 2017, Zapiro published a similar cartoon in The Daily Maverick titled “She’s all Yours, Boss!” saying at the time he never thought he would have to revisit the rape theme.
It depicts Zuma zipping up his trousers as one of the Gupta brothers gets ready to rape South Africa, depicted as a woman, with then-state security minister David Mahlobo, social development minister Bathabile Dlamini and The New Age editor Moegsien Williams holding her down.
Zapiro said Zuma had sued him for R5m each for three cartoons he did about him around the time of his rape trial but eventually dropped them.
Zuma also launched a R7m case against him for the Lady Justice cartoon which was later dropped.
“Some of the very powerful politicians who have thrown their weight around and abused the system are starting to look pretty faded at the edges,” he said.
“I certainly am carrying on. It’s about keeping those values and I have no intention from departing from those values.”
Zapiro joins other recipients of the order such as the late musician Johnny Clegg (1991), artist William Kentridge (1993) and dancer and choreographer Gregory Maqoma (2017).
According to the French Ministry of Culture’s website, the order that Zapiro received was established in 1957 to reward those who have distinguished themselves through their creations in the artistic or literary field, or those who have contributed to furthering the arts in France and around the world.
The Order of Saint Michael was considered its precursor and was originally intended for the aristocracy. However, in the 17th and 18th centuries, it tended toward becoming an order of civil merit for artists, architects, collectors and the like.