Getting the Message Across: A Critical Consideration of Selected Political Cartoons on AIDS in South Africa

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Getting the message across: a critical consideration of selected political cartoons on AIDS in South Africa.

... to survive ... in this immensely stressful profession, the political cartoonist has to sit down each day with a blank sheet of paper, absorb every aspect of the day's news, produce anything up to six roughs by mid-morning and then create a cartoon which is topical, well drawn, features recognisable caricatures of leading celebrities, is in some indefinable but powerful sense 'telling', and also, if possible, is spiced (but not necessarily so) with some large grains of wry humour. But the most important thing is always the message--without that it fails completely ... (Bryant 1997: 61-2).

This article analyses a selection of AIDS-related political cartoons by a range of South African cartoonists and considers how effectively they convey their messages. The term 'cartoon' connotes something inconsequential and lightweight, but this article is premised on the assumption that cartoons are a serious form of commentary, offering important oppositional viewpoints on social and political issues. Spitulnik (2002) describes them--together with certain other forms of discourse as 'alternative communicative spaces'.

The phenomenon of AIDS has been politicised wherever it has occurred in the world, but this process has been especially marked in South Africa, where it seems virtually impossible to discuss the epidemic without referring to the political background which has affected its course so dramatically. It is beyond dispute that the policies of the post-apartheid government have exacerbated the mortality rate from AIDS in South Africa. (14)

The period of South African history following the first democratic election in April 1994 has been marked by dramatic political and social change. The peak of the AIDS epidemic coincided with the changeover to democracy, (15) so that the disruption caused by AIDS complicated an already turbulent period of social transformation. In this process, the discourse of AIDS has become inseparably entangled with the discourse of politics. Cartoonists have highlighted the political dimensions of the epidemic in diverse and creative ways.

The political cartoon falls into the genre of satire, traditionally a discourse of power and attack, criticising and mocking aspects of the discursive context in which it is rooted. Most AIDS-related satire in South Africa challenges those in positions of power, exposing the negative consequences of their decisions. The main targets are politicians, the authors and agents of government health policies. As Jerry Robinson observes, 'cartoonists are functioning subversives, waging war on the powerful, the exploiters, and the privileged. In the tradition of Tom Paine, (16) cartoons of political satire are the revolutionary essays of our time' (1981: 7).

Satire usually incorporates the elements of criticism and ridicule, and entails what Bogel terms the 'satiric triangle' (1995: 52), formed by the satirist, reader and 'satiric object' (the target of the criticism), but some cartoons simply present a perspective on the status quo, and the cartoonist is saying little more than 'this is the way it is' (Press 1981: 75). The qualities of cartoons can be more fruitfully explored when applied to actual texts, so before further general discussion, particular examples will be analysed. In the first example of a cartoon that is more descriptive than satirical, one by Jeremy Nell ('Jerm'), (17) AIDS is presented as one of the threats to the young South African democracy.

The cartoon shows the inside of a ballot box in which a vote is being deposited in the April 1994 elections. Lurking inside the box are a number of fierce-looking, germ-like creatures, apparently eager to devour the ballot. These creatures are labelled 'Poverty', 'Crime', 'Corruption', 'Racism' and 'AIDS'. (It should be noted that the cartoon was created at the end of 2010, so the cartoonist is taking a retrospective look at what he believes has undermined and continues to undermine 'Freedom' in South Africa over the previous sixteen years. …