Page last updated at 08:10 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

SA satirists pulling the strings


An excerpt from Za News, South Africa's first political satire

By Jonah Fisher
BBC News, Cape Town

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki sits alone in a dark bar. Pipe in one hand, empty glass in the other he agonises over what to order.

"Bartender give me a Quiet Diplomacy... No, that doesn't do anything," he says.

"Give me an African Renaissance... No, that never arrives.

Jonathan Shapiro and a Mandela puppet
It is a kind of censorship that has very little to do with government
Jonathan Shapiro

"Wait, I've got it - can you get me a Polokwane Surprise? It's vodka, sour grapes crushed ice and then you stab it in the back when it's not looking."

It is a short but devastating summary of Mr Mbeki's delusions, failings and demise.

Ten tortured years in the making, Za News, South Africa's first real attempt at televised political satire, has finally begun full production.

But it will not be seen on South African TV.

Originally commissioned by public broadcaster the SABC, a pilot episode was made but they refused to put it on air.

Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail & Guardian newspaper, says the SABC "backed off in terror when they saw the content" and that commercial broadcasters were "lily livered" when they refused to pick it up.

"It's part of our place in this country to not sit around relaxed and pleased about the degree of freedom that we have in the media here but also to hold the space open," Mr Dawes says.

Presidential pain

The Mail & Guardian, along with Kulula airlines, are now funding Za News to produce three-minute shows four times each week and publish them online.

Helen Zille
I think the ANC guys look pretty good - you can see what an advantage dark skin is
The real Helen Zille

"I do feel that we've been censored," says Jonathan Shapiro - the cartoonist and creative driving force behind Za News.

"It is a kind of censorship that has very little to do with government.

"It's a censorship that is based on the fears of people in corporations who are beholden to government."

Mr Shapiro, or Zapiro as he is most widely known, says the troubled experience with Za News is in stark contrast to the huge freedom of expression he enjoys as a cartoonist appearing regularly in the Mail & Guardian.

In fact his freedom as a cartoonist has lead to President Jacob Zuma beginning legal proceedings against him, demanding millions of rands for injuring his "dignity and reputation".

The cartoons refer to Mr Zuma's acquittal on rape charges and his struggle to have corruption charges against him dropped.

But Mr Shapiro believes the charges will be dropped, or at least forgotten, as Mr Zuma is unlikely to want to testify in court.

Politicians divided

Among the statesmen caricatured in latex perhaps the most eagerly anticipated was Julius Malema, the outspoken president of the ANC Youth League.

To many South Africans, he is already something of a caricature in the flesh.

Zuma puppet on a studio set in Cape Town
Getting the characters ready involves great team effort

Infamously he threatened to "kill for Zuma" and in Za News he is portrayed as an idiotic young sidekick of the president, sucking a lollipop or listening to an iPod.

During TV interviews the puppet Julius Malema brandishes the dictionary of his Pedi language to back up his often ridiculous arguments.

The real Julius Malema claimed that Caster Semenya, the champion sprinter whose gender has been queried by officials, could not be a hermaphrodite because "there is no such word in the Pedi dictionary".

Though some within the ANC are thought to be chuckling, it does not seem that Mr Malema gets the joke.

When asked for a comment on the programme's portrayal of him, Mr Malema's spokesperson hung up the phone.

The only white puppet in Za News is Helen Zille, the Western Cape premier and leader of the opposition.

She is relentlessly mocked on the show for her apparent addiction to botox.

Oh, I believe I have met this gentleman before
Mandela on Mandela

"With a face like that you need botox, eh?" she says while watching her puppet face stretched close to breaking point.

Ms Zille says she is willing to accept the jokes as part of the territory.

But she says SABC's rejection of the programme shows how it acts as a mouthpiece for the ANC rather than a public broadcaster.

Scrutinising politicians

At 91 years old, Nelson Mandela is probably not catching the four weekly shows online - but according to Jonathan Shapiro he is a fan of his puppet.

At a function to mark this departure from office in 1999 Mr Shapiro managed to bring together the real and rubber Mandelas.

Latex version of Desmond Tutu
The show does not balk at lampooning even the most revered figures

"I approached him [Mandela] through this field of bodyguards - stuck the puppet's hand out and he said: 'Oh I believe I have met this gentleman before'.

"Which was fantastic, he really responds to humour and to satire and I wish more politicians would be like that."

Though denied the broad reach that television would have brought, its backers believe Za News is making a real impact.

"Politicians are never really under scrutiny and are never really asked hard questions. With our show we are creating a mini stage where we are asking those questions." says executive producer of Za News, Thierry Cassuto.

The biggest relief for South African politicians may be that just 10% of the population have access to the internet.

Or, as the puppet Julius Malema says in the show: "The internet? What is that? I have checked and there is no such word in the Pedi dictionary."

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