Has the line between caricaturing and relying on racist tropes been blurred in cartoonist Zapiro’s recent work?

Ah, greasy, beak-nosed men with unsavoury, five-o-clock shadows darkening swarthy jawlines, proffering gifts and currying favours. Good to see that the illustrious history that connects the stereotyping of Jewish people and Indians (particularly Indians in Africa) is continuing, at the hands of cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro. Shapiro’s work is beyond well-known in South Africa and abroad; he’s beloved for drawing Mandela as a figure of humility and humour large enough to love the caricatures Shapiro drew of him. Shapiro is also famous for lambasting political leaders who capitalised on Mandela’s (and the ANC’s former) glory to garner private fortunes, via under-cover deals. Enter Ajay, Atol and Rajesh Gupta, who journeyed to South Africa from Saharanpur, India during the 1990s to explore possible business opportunities in the country. And they found plenty of business with members of the ANC. 

Among the rumours swirling around the Guptas: that they brokered a deal that benefits them and Duduzane Zuma (the son of Jacob Zuma), becoming co-shareholders in a deal with China Railway Construction Corporation, and another “R9-billion empowerment deal” with Indian-Swiss megacorporation ArcelorMittal. (The Gupta family has set up a WordPress blog to establish the facts and address what they call “this ‘perception-mongering'” by the South African media here.) Given all this, it’s no wonder that the Three Brothers Gupta would become Zapiro subjects.

However, it’s the direction that the satirist’s pen took, when depicting Ajay, Atol and Rajesh’s features, to which we want to draw attention; whether that direction was taken inadvertently or not, the similarities between how Jewish people were/are depicted in anti-Semitic cartoons and Zapiro’s depiction of the Guptas are hard to ignore. The history of stereotyping Indians as the ‘Jews’ of East and Southern Africa is a long one. It’s a trope that is reflected in Drum writing in the 1950s and earlier, as well as in the writing of the brothers Naipaul. In North of South, Shiva Naipaul wrote, after visiting East Africa in the 1970s, “the Asian is the eternal ‘other'” in Africa (readers: please feel free to supply us with details from V.S. and Shiva Naipaul). Making this odd linkage actually goes back as far as the 19th century, when missionaries like David Livingstone et al conveniently saw ‘Indians’ and ‘Arabs’ as exploitative forces preying on naive-yet-untrusting natives, thereby necessitating white intervention.

Paul Theroux, the travel writer, is also famous for detailed vignettes in which the persecution of Indians in East Africa is paralleled to the stereotyping (and eventual persecution) of Jews in Europe, even though he doesn’t explicitly say so (read this blog entry for a blow-by-blow comparison). In Dark Star Safari, there are multiple stories about Indians being spoken of in a denigrating manner, highlighting their propensity to be good shopkeepers who live a “rather secluded life–all numbers and money and goods on shelves.” Others are more crazy-ugly, such as a gem recounted by a man named Karsten on a dugout canoe ride, concerning the reason why Indians are so rich: they catch the biggest fish on the mighty Zambezi by using the chopped up parts of the heart of young Zambian maidens to bait their fishing lines, luring fish with diamonds in them. Each of Theroux’s narratives involving Indians have linkages to older myths about blood-libels, told about the Jews of Europe.

jews-poisining-a-wellThe comparisons have had enough impact that Asians in Africa sometimes refer to themselves as a group who experience the same dilemmas as German-Jewish people did, circa 1930s (see the National Museums of Kenya ethnographer, Sultan H. Somjee’s comments here). When I first read Theroux’s comparisons as a grad student, I thought, “Oh, right. That makes a sort of racist sense, masquerading as a sympathetic gesture of solidarity,” and left it at that. For the uninitiated, it may seem like a bit of leap between Zapiro’s Guptas and the figure of the Jew (men, ususally) in anti-Semitic cartoons. If you have doubts about the resonances to which I’m referring, have a look at some of these.

First, a woodcut from Pierre Boaistuau’s Histoires Prodigieuses (above). Dated around 1569, depicting a Jewish man poisoning a well into which the Devil is urinating. The image here isn’t clear enough to show the features, but you may get the drift.

Second, cartoons from the Nazi era certainly make the linkages between Shapiro’s Guptas and theirs clear: see here (Polish cartoon depicting Jewish people as fat/well off while blaming the poor for their poverty), and the one left, promoting the Nazi claim that the Jews were behind World War II, having orchestrated it to destroy Nazi Germany (The caption: “One eats the other and the Jew devours them all…”). Source: Lustige Blätter, a weekly German humor magazine; issue #29/1943.


Then there are more modern versions of this type of depiction of Jewish people, propelled by the state of Israel’s unconscionable actions against the Palestinians:

And finally some food to complicate your thoughts: in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming adaption of F. Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Bollywood patriarch Amitabh Bachchan (below) is set to play the Jewish character of Meyer Wolfsheim, whom Fitzgerald portrayed as a money-grubbing, crude, corrupt, hairy man with a pronounced Yiddish accent who continually insinuates himself into acceptable society via his business “goneggtions”:


We’re no apologists for the underhanded tactics of industrialists like the Guptas – and by all means, Zapiro, poke fun, expose, critique. But if you want to create Golliwog referenced-drawings when you critique black leaders or as stand-ins for black people (even as you mean to critique the very problem of such residual views in racist societies — a methodology of social critique employed by Anton Kannemeyer’s camp of cartooning), or keep getting endless laughs with, say, a president-with-a-shower-head, nose broader than a table top, or outlandishly pouty lips, I hope there’s space for us to point out that the line between caricaturing a public figure’s specific traits and a tendency towards relying on racist tropes might have been blurred.

* Thanks to Dan Magaziner for the reminder on Livingstone and the Naipauls’ references to the trope.

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12 thoughts on “Has the line between caricaturing and relying on racist tropes been blurred in cartoonist Zapiro’s recent work?

  1. I am not an unquestioning fan of Zapiro but I find this post a little ridiculous. The fact that Paul Theroux is one of your key references on the othering of peoples of Asian origin in Africa is testimony enough to that. Theroux has many more problems than Zapiro.

  2. Unlike stupid, which is as it does, racism, or stereotyping, is as it is perceived (or porn for that matter, “:I know it when I see it”). Neelika’s discomfort cannot be summarily dismissed as extreme sensitivity considering the historical perspective she is quoting. Perhaps due to length or time constraints, she fails however to make the case for her original argument, which is that the Zapiro cartoon of the Guptas rides along that line of racism/stereotyping she conjures. It is standard fare for cartoonists/ illustrators to portray people accused of greedy, corrupt acts with that look, for that look is the “recognized” greed look. Whether that look is borrowed from a legacy of antisemitism propaganda or simple illustration conventions is up to debate.

  3. Po: you pretty much got it – due to time constraints (everyone at AIAC has ‘day’ jobs, so we do our writing in our spare time), I didn’t go lengthily into the history/scholarship linking Indian history in Africa/Jewish experience as the “Others of Europe” that made me initially wonder about Zapiro’s cartoon of the Guptas, and whether it “rides along that line of racism/stereotyping” that I saw (I fist came across the ancient versions of Jewish caricatures in an Early Modern literature course I took as an undergrad. They’ve fascinated me ever since). This is just an opening salvo of sorts – others can take up the thought, search, do the scholarship. I don’t know, as you said, whether corrupt people are always portrayed as shady-faced and hood-lidded (due to conventions of illustration), or if these tropes of greed/corruption are/have always had elements of racial markers (consciously used or not). I’d love it if readers would contribute their knowledge.

    Theroux: yes! He is, as Dan Magaziner (fellow AIAC writer) said, “so reliable this way.” I use him for comic relief, and…because his views have had an enormous impact on a wide swathe of readers. Not everyone dismisses him. But there are others – including Livingstone, and the Naipaul brothers (again, problematic, but…widely read and respected by as many as those that dismiss them).

    However, I love Zapiro, and have no personal vendetta. And I’m hardly ever accused of being ‘over-sensitivity’ – if anything, I’m often told I’m critical…and thereby irritate people by exposing the problematic issues under long-beloved beliefs/practices. So I can see why criticism of Zapiro would unsettle – resulting in ad-hominem attacks. As a person who had a near-idyllic childhood in Zambia, and having a pretty happy and fulfilling life now, I can hardly justify any chip on my shoulder; and knowing that shame is simply not a productive emotion (and is often used by institutions to control groups and stultify personal growth), I rarely put up with it.

  4. I know it’s not really related, but thinking about racial misrepresentation after reading this, I happened upon this article from today’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/nyregion/hikind-defends-wearing-blackface-to-purim-party.html?hp&_r=0
    It made me think of your post a while back about blackface in Indian advertisements.
    My favorite gem is the quote about an afro wig being similar to the hair of black basketball players.

    • Why wouldn’t he wanna go as Larry Bird? Whiten up, Blonden up, and walk in tall. Ah yes, the cheap wig is so similar to real basketball players hair?

  5. I’d be more inclined to agree with Neelika if Zapiro has demonstrated a pattern of singling out Indians, as opposed to being more or less an equal opportunity offender of the rich and powerful. The very point of political cartooning is to make a point by exaggerated distortion, as in the shower head sprouting from Jacob Zuma’s indented skull. I also find problematic the authorities cited, more than Paul Theroux his estranged mentor, VS Naipaul, a man of such transcendental talent as a writer whose singular blind spot is his lack of empathy [even contempt] for the faces at the bottom of the well, and whose work fairly drips with his utter contempt for Africans in particular. (“People who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in this world…”– that of course is contained in the opening bars of, if memory serves, ‘A Bend in the River.’) Naipaul is the ultimate mimic man that he so expertly derides. Such talent though, so I cut him some slack, but not too much, in order to engage deeply with his work.

  6. Everyone wants to be a victim these days. It is the cool thing to be and to write about as additional academic insight. I blame it on Area Studies in the post modernist university. Real class issues have given way to narrow identity, national or worst ethnic or sexual concerns. It was a great victory at first, the space so valliently fought by african Americans leaders and scholars. And then there is South Africa where people still live as if they are black minorities in an -Afrikaans majority country.
    But the fact is Indians in Africa are not victims. It is pretentious to draw parallels with the Jews in Europe. I have never been to South Africa but I have lived in Kenya and studied in NYC with Indian Africans from the East and the South. My unmistakable impression was that Africa was for them a cash cow with little emotional and cultural investment. They did not consider themselves Africans. (I have seen Portuguese from Mozambique attend and proudly represent in the African Student Association meetings but never an Indian) Again I know South Africa may be different but in East Africa, the Indian community as a collective bears responsibility for much of the unwholesome feeling towards it.
    Professor Mamdani who is an Indian Ugandan admits this much. He goes further when he explains that Ugandan blacks felt independence was incomplete until Amin seized and expelled Indian Africans. Why? because I think, the human instinct of greed and opportunity combined with colonial legacy, has blinded the Indian community public opinion. This could also be true with Levantine Arabs and Chinese.

    I know it is fashionable for the whole world to imitate the American university as though it too had the same exact social and population composition and historical context, as the US. But that is hardly a problem of South Africa alone. Even in the Arab world, where I have been spending sometime lately, a surreal sort of public discussion about racism and sexism is taking form. Surreal because it is (the discussion) struggling to fit peculiarly Arab social concerns with linguistic and conceptual tools borne out of uniquely American experience. The only hope would be, at least in the Arab world, that these academic adaptations will lead into a genuine discussion about the racism and sexism in an increasingly young cosmopolitan Arabic street. But at the moment it is not very unlike viral popularity and re-renditions of Harlem shake and things o that sort.

    • @grant: yes, we’re quite aware that Shapiro’s Jewish. And yes, the reference to the individual Guptas are quite clear. Shapiro’s a good cartoonist. And I’m sure he isn’t anti-Semitic!

      Rather…I’m more interested in pointing out: his caricatures of some corrupt characters (probably quite legitimately corrupt) who are of an ethnicity that are often referred to as the ‘Jews of Africa’ (and not always in a positive manner) are strangely reminiscent of caricatures made of Jewish people. There are certain tropes used in cartooning, and those tropes don’t exist in a vacuum. For instance: when anti-capitalist cartoons were historically drawn in the US – regarding capitalist corruption – there were always a big difference between those capitalists (seen as ‘WASPS’) and those depicted as Jews. The tropes used commonly in cartooning are affected by what the cartoonist (and the audience) perceives, and how the artist’s/audience’s cultural and historical milieu affects their perceptions. And sometimes, those cultural tropes are reflected in one’s own work (even) when those perceptions are negative views about one’s own group.

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