“The man in the shower is giving us trouble! “, says Zapiro, South Africa’s most famous cartoonist, with a burst of laughter, referring to the omnipresence of ex-president Jacob Zuma in the campaign for the legislative elections scheduled for the end of May. The well-known anecdote dates back to 2006: the politician publicly recounted having had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman, believing he had “minimized” the risk of transmission by taking a shower immediately afterwards. Since then, Zapiro, 65, has systematically drawn Jacob Zuma with a pommel perched above his head, endlessly irritating the ex-president, who took him to court on several occasions.

Thirty years after the advent of democracy, press caricatures are doing well in South Africa. After decades of censorship under apartheid, freedom is to be savored. “Zuma offers us golden material, the period is dense,” confirms Nathi Ngubane, 34, born a month after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. His parents, of Zulu origin like Jacob Zuma, were initially shocked that he lacked so much respect for his elders in his drawings. “I do it because I can do it,” he says, triumphantly.

Being a cartoonist implies “being courageous”, including going beyond this cultural prohibition. And “an elder who commits crimes, who dabbles in corruption, should expect to be subject to scrutiny.” “I have every right as a South African living in a democracy, including the right to criticize those who behave badly,” he said calmly, drawing Jacob Zuma in traditional Zulu attire, a spear in his hand, on which is skewered the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa.

Jacob Zuma, suspended in January from the ruling African National Congress (ANC), is campaigning on behalf of a small, recently created radical party called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). On May 29, the ANC risks, for the first time in its history, losing its parliamentary majority, undoubtedly forcing it to form a coalition government. Never has a vote been so contested since the end of apartheid.

“AI doesn’t understand irony.”

In his sunny Cape Town workshop, his dog Captain Haddock lying under the desk, Zapiro, whose real name is Jonathan Shapiro, thinks and gloats, focused on his “left brain”: “I never start directly with a joke or a drawing. I start by wondering about my reaction to the latest news. » Recently, he drew multiple speech bubbles illustrating episodes of the campaign for the Daily Maverick, an online newspaper. He imagines himself there, wondering if artificial intelligence (AI) threatens his job.

Obviously, no. “The AI ​​doesn’t understand irony,” says Zapiro, receding hairline, green eyes and neat goatee. And the political reality in South Africa far exceeds any fiction. He cites Jacob Zuma, who goes it alone because he has become “too corrupt even for the ANC”, or even Cyril Ramaphosa, who finds himself in the dark in the middle of a speech on progress… in the supply of electricity.

Zapiro keeps the figures of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, side by side, to embody in his speeches the moral conscience of the country during tragic events such as the xenophobic violence of 2008. He struggles with Cyril Ramaphosa, who came to power on promises largely not held to fight corruption, which he calls “the most reluctant president we have had.” “I sketch him without a backbone or as a fake superhero,” he says.

“We must not let politicians bullshit us and knock them off their pedestals,” he says to summarize the cartoonists’ mission. And “encourage critical thinking.” “I will never run out of material in this country. Lots of stories surface, some confusing. We have foolish politicians,” he continues. Joyful for the artist, less so for the citizen, who admits to sometimes feeling a “dissonance” as the country, “shaky”, is doing badly. “The next five years are going to be scary. If we sink even deeper, this country could disappear. »