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The implications of using rape as an analogy:

Date Released: Fri, 21 April 2017 10:48 +0200

 Zapiro’s latest cartoon on state capture and the Zuma presidency.

Content note: rape and sexual violence, trauma

In defence of his latest cartoon depicting South Africa’s current political climate – i.e. state capture and the cabinet reshuffle which involved the axing of Pravin Gordhan and the retention of ministers whose latest work has been problematic to say the least – Zapiro argues that his decision to use rape as an analogy was a thoughtful, considered decision taken at great pains to himself and made for the good of the country (Herman, 2017).  The labour he does in defending his decision, in the midst of criticism, is revealing in and of itself for the wider societal assumptions made and held around ethics and sensitivity in the genre of satire, and understandings of rape culture, sexual violence, trauma and their relation to a politics of citizenship.  It is therefore deserving of scrutiny. The rhetoric employed in defending the cartoon indicates a failure to engage with the argument that there is no defence to be made for trivialising and normalising sexual violence (Arbader, 2017; eNCA, 2017) and that to do so, particularly in a country with high levels of such violence, is unethical in that it amounts to the perpetuation of rape culture (Ridgeway, 2014). Using rape as an analogy does exactly that. And even more. It forces victim-survivors to confront their own lived experiences, a positon which the Commission for Gender Equality has announced its agreement with (eNCA, 2017), while communicating the message that this triggering is either not a reality or is collateral damage and therefore something we can and should accept and live with. In other words, it communicates messages around who legitimately and visibly belongs and therefore whose lives can be said to matter.

Below, I interrogate the arguments reportedly made by Zapiro, published by News24 in an article by Herman (2017), defending his decision to use rape as analogy (for the actions of President Zuma).

"I’m not the only one saying it"

When criticised, stating that others have said the very same thing that is now under interrogation serves to establish the accuracy or truthfulness of the statement made. But not only that. Evoking a supposed majority does not only confer accuracy but also normality. The assumption is that if other people are saying it too, it can’t be as abnormal and therefore abhorrent as some are making it out to be. This in turn rests on assumptions we hold about whether ‘truth’ is objective/subjective, whether we believe it to have intrinsic versus instrumental value (the former relating to truth for its own sake while the latter calls attention to the uses of truth and the effects of this usage), and freedom of expression. In this discursive tactic, these intersect to convey the message that regardless of the possible effects and consequences of one’s words, enough people saying the same thing makes a statement truthful and entitles the speaker to an unfettered freedom to express the view under attack. In the case of Zapiro’s rape cartoon, the consequences certainly are significant as others have noted: retraumatisation of victim-survivors of sexual violence as well as the retraumatisation of black people in general and women in particular who continue to be represented in harmful and damaging ways (Arbader, 2017).

"desperate times call for desperate measures"

Here, Zapiro acknowledges that the cartoon was an extreme one but argues that it was necessitated by the scale of the problem: the violence committed by the president this time around involves other members of government and state organs with the whole country as the victim. Closer inspection is needed. Firstly, what exactly is Zapiro defending? Using rape as an analogy or depicting gang rape, a form of sexual violence which South African news media has repeatedly and problematically placed at the ‘most brutal’ and therefore ‘most heinous’ and ‘most unacceptable’ end of a scale of sexual violence? Given that this is the second cartoon of his to use rape as an analogy, perhaps it is the latter and not the very act of trivialising and normalising sexual violence that for him needs to be accounted for. In any case, the message is clear that whatever the consequences and effects, the move was entirely justified and that Zapiro himself is not be held personally accountable for the decision as the circumstances themselves demanded it of him.

"it is sensitive and ethically above-board"

Zapiro responds to questions around the ways in which victim-survivors might experience and receive the cartoon, by saying that the violence depicted is in fact sensitively portrayed as it relies on suggestion and implication as opposed to explicit violence. However, very little labour is needed by readers to deduce that rape is being depicted: the position of the woman and the actions of both the President and the Gupta brother are certainly unambiguous. Furthermore, to suggest that these depictions would not be triggering to victim-survivors perhaps displays a fundamental misunderstanding of or refusal to understand the variety of ways (from the subtle, indirect and seemingly innocuous to the more ‘direct’) (Brown, 2015) in which past traumatic experiences can be triggered and forced into the present, and the perspectives and experiences of victim-survivors. In failing to understand and foreground these experiences and perspectives, it communicates the message that certain lives do not matter as much. Indeed, feminist work around citizenship (for example, Yuval-Davis (2007)) has argued that not only is it not neutral in its inclusion and exclusion of who is a citizen, but that these inclusions/exclusions operate along various intersecting lines/dimensions such as gender and race among several others. The effect is the marginalisation, invisibilisation and silencing of the voices and lives of those excluded from belonging.

"the role of the political commentator"

Lastly, Zapiro draws for his defence on his role as a political commentator and the conventions of satire to which he is bound and which makes possible his authority. Thus, he argues that it is both his duty and prerogative to comment on the social and political life of the country and that the rules of political commentary allow him to make such decisions on how to do so. As a voice offering critique of those in power, the argument goes, he is both called upon and justified to use drastic measures for the good of the public: to spark debate about important issues.

From Zapiro’s argument, it is clear that what is being missed is that rape is not actually intrinsic to how we can understand the president’s actions. In other words, prohibiting Zapiro from using rape as an analogy does not equate to his silencing over the important issue of state capture. As Eusebius McKaiser argued in response to a caller’s failure to understand the outrage over the cartoon, there are plenty of ways of making sense of the president’s actions, ways which are not harmful and damaging to those excluded from citizenship. Corruption is one example. Theft might possibly be another. Anti-democracy might even be another. Rape/sexual violence is certainly not one of them.

By Jabulile Mary-Jane Jace Mavuso


Herman, P. (2017, April 11). Latest Zuma rape cartoon decision ‘not taken lightly’- Zapiro. News 24. Retrieved from http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/latest-rape-cartoon-decision-not-taken-lightly-zapiro-20170411

Ridgeway, S. (2014, March 10). 25 everyday examples of rape culture. Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/03/examples-of-rape-culture/

Arbader, G. (2017, April 12). Zaprio’s rape cartoon is indefensible. IOL. Retrieved from http://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/zapiros-rape-cartoon-is-indefensible-8631875

Brown, G. (2015, June 7). Not sure what people mean by triggering? This article is your one-stop 101. Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/guide-to-triggering/

Yuval-Davis, N. (2007). Intersectionality, citizenship and contemporary politics of belonging. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 10(4), 561-574.

eNCA (2017, April 13). Gender commission lashes Zapiro. eNews Channel Africa. Retrieved from https://www.enca.com/south-africa/zapiro-rape-cartoon-inappropriate-cge

Source:Jabulile Mavuso