What are cartoons meant to do?

What are cartoons meant to do?

Book review

Taking African Cartoons Seriously: Politics, Satire, and Culture

Edited by Peter Limb and Tejumola Olaniyan,

Michigan State University Press | East Lansing; 2018

Aristotle noted that man was a social animal, but also that we are the only species that laughs. What we laugh at remains something of a mystery.

We humans also practise professions that make of laughter a source of livelihood: court jesters have been around since the time of the pharaohs, but now we also have professional comedians and cartoonists – as well as those unwitting comedians, politicians. Cartoons, which often ridicule this latter species, are by definition funny. This is all the more reason why we should be Taking Africa’s Cartoons Seriously, as the authors of this book argue.

The flourishing of Africa’s cartoonists indicates that democracy is taking root. Edited by Peter Limb and Tejumola Olaniyan, the book is meant to correct the lack of analysis of political cartoons, and to introduce new approaches to the phenomenon. It contains an introduction and overview, seven essays, and five interviews with prominent cartoonists from sub-Saharan Africa.

The works analysed are by practitioners in Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana, while those interviewed are from Botswana, Namibia, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. Most of the essays present analyses of how and why cartoons work, while two present the vagaries of media freedom in South Africa and Ghana.

It is instructive that the cartoonists’ countries of origin influence their works and their thoughts about what they do. The political regimes in power in each case determine the form and content. Democracy is a necessary condition for cartooning that does not descend into hagiography.

Nigeria, the most populous country on the continent, has a long history of military rule and sporadic attempts at democracy. Ganiyu A Jimoh’s examination of cartoons about the Nigerian police uses semiotics as a methodology to demonstrate how cartoons work. He also provides a brief history of corruption in the police force before turning to cartoonists’ use of physical features: the potbelly – to denote corruption and ill-gotten wealth, as well as indolence and a dereliction of duty.

Caricature is a favourite device of most cartoonists, exaggerating the physical features of leaders and the elites – a nose enlarged, a look in the eye made hyperbole, a character trait rendered hilarious. Caricature diminishes the authority of the powermonger, stripping him (more often a him) of legitimacy and reducing him to less than ordinary.

Olaniyan examines the work of Bisi Ogunbadejo, a veteran cartoonist who focuses not on political failure but on “how such failures come to be” because of the human condition. His work, says Olaniyan, exemplifies the cartoon of exploration rather than the more common cartoon of display, where ridicule is paramount. While Ogunbadejo’s exploratory cartoons do not produce belly laughs, they present “irresistible humour at its most troubling unhumorous best”, plunging the reader into contemplation of a paradox.

Baba G Jallow explores the decade after 1957 in Ghana, during the reign of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana. Nkrumah went from being the nation’s saviour to declaring a one-party state, crowning himself president-for-life and encouraging his people to see him as a god.

Cartoonists showered him with praise, but the day he was deposed, the very same cartoonists ridiculed him and celebrated his downfall. Jallow argues, unconvincingly, that excessive praise can be a coded form of critique. “What appears to be caricatures of one person or issue might actually be caricatures of those who caricature the person or issue,” he argues.  It seems he fails to see that not all cartoons achieve their aim. Some simply aren’t much of anything: neither funny, nor acute, critical nor interesting.

Joseph Oduro-Frimpong examines a later period in Ghana, the fourth republic of 1993, after which “Ghana boasts a robust press freedom”. He focuses on The Black Narrator, “the first to exemplify the changing nature of cartooning in Ghana since 1992”. This cartoonist tackles corruption in government, the judiciary and sanitation – the latter an issue that posed a grave threat to public health. Oduro-Frimpong is concerned to break the distinction between entertainment and political resistance, seeing cartoons as “one of the myriad ways ordinary people cope with and undermine the politics of hegemony pursued by the political elite”.

Seeing cartoons as a “running commentary on events”, Gathara sets out a brief history of the media and cartooning in Kenya, paying homage to pioneers such as Paul “Madd” Kelemba, “the first indigenous political cartoonist to reach national prominence” who emerged in 1986. Madd was succeeded by Godfrey Mwampembwa, aka Gado, now one of the foremost cartoonists on the continent.

These days, the state sometimes uses the threat of litigation to silence critics, and in 2014 the editors of The Standard, a Kenyan news outlet, were summoned to State House in connection with an exposé about state overspending. Gado was the victim in April 2015, asked by his editor to “take a break” before being sacked in February 2016. As a consequence, says Gathara, self-censorship has become the greatest threat to media freedom in Kenya. But the state is not the only threat: advertisers also play a nefarious role in keeping certain issues out of newspapers.

Paula Callus explores tactics of subversion in her chapter on animation, a form allied to cartooning but requiring technological devices rather than two-dimensional paper. She points to the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, smartphones and new forms of production and distribution for cartoonists, filmmakers and media practitioners. She focuses particularly on emerging animators – such as Gatumia Gatumia, whose The Greedy Lords of the Jungle, a short animated film that could be interpreted in myriad ways, is a critique of colonialism but also of power relations in post-colonial Africa.

The producers of these animations rely on the moving image as a way of bypassing the eye of the censor to get to children, thereby producing sublimated critiques of power relations. But she cautions that rather than simply being oppositional, some of these artists are prone to imbrication in the systems they question, sometimes becoming complicit with the aims of funders, or of government’s desire to develop the IT sector.

South Africa looms large in the book. It has unique features, most notably a history of oppressive relations between white overlords and black subjects, a condition that has not been entirely eradicated by more than two decades of democracy. The country’s early cartoonists – mainly white, exploiting the space made possible by a whites-only democracy – appear to have long experience of how to cock a snook at power, a tradition continued by Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, one of the most respected practitioners in Africa.

Post 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been angered by Zapiro’s disillusionment with the failure of the post-apartheid project, especially when he portrayed younger leaders as monkeys, devolving rather than evolving, betraying the traditions set by Nelson Mandela. Indeed, Zapiro has laid himself open to charges of racism, which the ANC has exploited.

A new mood swept the country during the reign of Jacob Zuma, when democracy waned, corruption became a structural feature of the economy, service delivery plummeted, and a new smartphone-carrying generation began to agitate against the inequalities that weighed on them. Andy Mason and Su Opperman, in both their interview with Zapiro and their history of the media after apartheid, foreground quite radical shifts in relations between cartoonists, the public and the powers that be. They present a history of debacles: rude depictions of Zuma caused outrage among ANC leaders and supporters – more so if white artists produced these, as they were more prone to charges of racism.

Mason and Opperman’s interview with Zapiro seems overly concerned with the cartoonist’s disengagement from a new public, lamenting the reactions of young black people who, they imply, should know that Zapiro is a struggle veteran. One can’t help thinking these writers are failing to come to terms with a new set of struggles inspired by new conditions. But they raise the question of self-censorship: should Zapiro watch what he says lest he offend a new generation? The issue has taken on a new urgency in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris and the awful dialectic between Islamic terrorism and Islamophobia. Cartoonists have to court outrage as well as take a side, and sometimes are able to convey the difficulty of treading this fine line. Effective cartoonists use irony to overcome this duality, but this is not always welcome.

The book raises a series of questions, the central one being what cartooning is meant to do: should it reflect, enlighten, or castigate? All of the above? For Aristotle, comedy was the representation of people “worse than us”, and what we laugh at is the ugly and the shameful. He was right!   

YUNUS MOMONIAT is a researcher and writer at South African History Online and an occasional political commentator.
Betraying Africa’s young and desperate

Betraying Africa’s young and desperate

Book review

The Outcast Majority: War, Development, and Youth in Africa by Marc Sommers, University of Georgia Press, 2015

In recent decades, a number of African countries have been wracked by war, among them Sierra Leone, Liberia, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And in all of them, young people, and young males especially, have become almost a reviled species, with theories linking the “youth bulge” to political instability and the threat of violence.

With this as a starting point, Marc Sommers’ book takes us on a startling exploration of the dysfunctional relationship between youth who have been through wars in Africa and the development agencies established to minister to them. In outline, Sommers argues that these young people are being marginalised by communities, governments, and international development and donor agencies. They have, he says, been “cast out”.

The development agencies do not appear to understand the youth they are supposed to try and help, argues Sommers, who has worked as a technical advisor to “numerous donor and UN agencies, policy institutes and NGOs”, according to his LinkedIn profile. The agencies don’t ask young people about their lives and living conditions – and when they do speak they don’t believe them. Even when they do ask them about their lives, they pose the wrong questions in the wrong way, he argues.

It is the continent’s warlords who have recognised the potential of young people, often putting them in positions of responsibility and trust, with leadership tasks, he argues. Somewhat ironically, he suggests, the international donor community in particular needs to learn from the warlords. This counter-intuitive approach runs throughout the book, in which Sommers disabuses us of myriad misconceptions and sheds light on the real situation of many of Africa’s young people.

The book begins with the facts: how “war affects the lives, trajectories and bodies of youth”. Most young Africans will never progress beyond primary school because they face a clash of values and priorities. In particular, older children often have to work to enable younger siblings to attend primary school. Young people in Africa can find themselves growing up in situations in which the future is absent, and where survival means adapting to horrific conditions.

During the Liberian civil war between 1989 and 2003, for instance, villages were destroyed and survivors were forced to take to the forests. Similarly, during the civil war in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, citizens faced the brutal reign of Liberia’s marauding Revolutionary United Front, and were often subjected to amputation, rape (males and females) and abduction.

In South Sudan, from the mid-1980s to 2002, villagers were forced to put up with regular invasions that saw them living under militias that violated their rights – only to be faced by stronger militias the next time around that punished them for obeying the departing militia. Those who moved to other villages were suspected of being spies or members of resistance organisations, and killed. During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, sexual violence was used as a weapon of subjugation, as it has been elsewhere – including eastern Europe. Young girls were raped in front of parents, and siblings forced to rape sisters and even mothers.

In such circumstances many young people could only escape their plight by becoming members of militias themselves, which at least enabled them to survive by looting. In Liberia, Charles Taylor practised a “pay yourself” policy –  “if you don’t loot you don’t eat”. During times of war, youth combatants who had not been used to having money suddenly had access to cars, beer and women. They had “become someone” and escaped insignificance. Girl combatants suffered unrelenting victimisation, as well as profound invisibility, during and after combat.

Sommers reviews various theories of trauma for their relevance to the African situation, which poses challenges to standard theories. For example, post-traumatic stress theory assumes a relative stability before an experience of trauma, but the African child will often have been imbricated in a traumatic situation from the start of life, and will have received constant, repetitive psychic pounding before the emergence of a large-scale conflict in their society.

This makes the application of such theories problematic, Sommers suggests. Traumatised African youth often cannot be counselled. Their survival is based not on talking, but on active forgetting. As Sommers suggests, prohibitions on talk are rational when talk can only reproduce memories of war and their associated paralysis of the will. So it is that researchers remain in the dark and underestimate their subjects’ suffering.

Sommers rounds off his account of the effects of war by showing how young Africans are often doomed to remain in the category of youth. Normally, adulthood would require such things as having a job, being able to buy a house and support children and their education. Because they are held back from these things, their adulthood may be permanently deferred, and they will find themselves living in limbo. The effects of war will mar post-war situations. Adults have expectations of youth that are totally out of touch with their experiences. Young people, meanwhile, are still suffering from the effects of sexual violence, abduction and alienation from each other as well as their parents. And so they migrate to cities.

Development agencies tout agriculture as the answer to Africa’s lack of jobs, but many alienated African youths experience the city as a place of freedom: from overbearing traditions, from adults, from rules of marriage that demand adult status. In villages, farm work is considered menial, a female preserve, and is subject to constant humiliation. The city, meanwhile, is seen as a place of excitement, innovation, and liberating anonymity.

Development programmes often exacerbate tensions where they operate, Sommers goes on. Selecting some young people, usually those with elite backgrounds, they exclude “bad youth” – who then perceive such programmes mainly as a source of exclusion. The NGOs that operate in their environments also reflect the affluent lifestyles of NGO workers, creating desires in the youth that will be frustrated and result in resentment, the author says.

Turning to the work of the UN, World Bank, USAID and other development agencies in post-war situations, Sommers argues that these are out of touch with the experiences of youth. They are, moreover, he says, subject to the delusion that they are clocking up successes while societies disintegrate around them.

Rwanda is often touted as an example of a successful transition from war, but the flipside of this is that the country’s population has been subjugated by an authoritarian regime. The country’s economic success, according to many reports, derives from raids on mineral resources in eastern DRC, where the Rwandan army has been accused of atrocities. From 1994 to 2003, as many as 300,000 Hutus were killed in the DRC, and up to 90,000 dissenters in Rwanda itself.

But development agencies sidestep these realities, Sommers says. Their “success literature” is based on quantitative research that is motivated by the need to show that neo-liberal programmes are working, and so fixes on specific indices to demonstrate improvements. He argues that this literature betrays a simplistic view that favours elite youth and farm workers at the expense of the impoverished and alienated young people of the cities.

No raving leftie, Sommers nevertheless places the blame for the current situation on the neo-liberalism of the World Bank and allied institutions. In particular, he blames the methods they use, which were formulated by Robert McNamara, who was US Secretary of Defence from 1961-1968, before becoming World Bank president in 1968. At the Pentagon, he applied corporate methods – measurement based decision-making and policy analysis – which he also took to the World Bank.

Sommers lists five consequences of quantitative measurement: emphasis on compliance with agency regulations, which results in a subtle redefinition of development and a focus on short-term goals; a cost-benefit approach advocated by development economics; the measurement of activities, outputs, purposes and goals, influenced by a (US global think tank with which McNamara was associated) RAND-style Logical Framework approach; a focus on quantifiable results and hard-science programmes in areas such as public health, which have measurable outcomes popular with the media; and a heavy emphasis on the provision of measurable public-service delivery, while institutions such as education are ignored.

It was this kind of thinking that went into the IMF’s notorious structural adjustment programmes in the last decades of the 20th century, Sommers argues. First put into operation in Senegal in 1979, their claimed purpose was to forge lean governments and large private sectors and so fuel trade and growth. However, their real effect was to open up (so-called) third world economies to global markets. On this, Sommers quotes Joseph Stiglitz: “privatisation in transition countries led to asset stripping rather than wealth creation”.

Sommers is especially scathing of a programme devised by Jeffrey Sachs, who launched the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in line with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, as a supposed “scientific approach to ending poverty”. Sachs focused on a region in Kenya, where villages were chosen for targeted investment, so that “disease can be controlled, crop yields increased, and infrastructure such as roads taken to villages”. Yet, after the UN invested $2.5m in Dertu, Kenya, neighbours clashed, clans tried to control the money, and rampant inequality emerged.

Critics of Sachs noted that these projects were evaluated by project members and presented as successes. More generally, Sommers argues, this tendency to self-evaluate – incorrectly and dishonestly – has been one of the downsides of developmental initiatives more widely, ultimately serving agency staff and not their subjects.

Sommers closes his book with a set of recommendations for developmental agencies which would bring them in line with their purported aims. He calls on agencies to include young people in the design and operation of their programmes. The priorities of so-called “bad youth” must be addressed, as this is the group that most needs help and their inclusion would reverse negative patterns. The favouring of elite youth makes a mockery of development, he insists.

Further, he exhorts agencies to forego previous methods and develop a sensitivity to the peculiarities of the youth – their differences (class, gender, experience) – and, above all, to listen to them, especially the excluded. He also urges agencies to oppose government abuses, because the effectiveness of the agencies’ programmes depends on their credibility in opposing human rights abuses. Many agencies have played along with or ignored state outrages, as in Rwanda.

Quantitative research, Sommers insists, must be integrated into qualitative data to achieve a balance between short-term and long-term goals. Qualitative research must include insights from a range of disciplines as well as engagements with youth that will inspire trust from them. A passionate but rigorous defender of Africa’s young people, Sommers’ insights need to be heeded if the continent is to emerge from its quagmire.

YUNUS MOMONIAT is a researcher and writer at South African History Online and an occasional political commentator.