Written by: Terence Corrigan
The 18th century French philosopher Voltaire once memorably wrote that “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.” Today, the vehicle through which the Almighty evidently does so is often the satirical cartoonist.
They are a special breed. They combine a grasp of societies’ dynamics, an appetite for the daily news, a quick wit and a good dose of artistic talent. It is their job not so much to hold a mirror up to society as to filter its view of itself through lenses of humour, absurdity and rebuke.
So it is with Jeremy Nell – better known as ‘Jerm’, cartoonist by profession (South Africa’s 39th best, in his own estimation), and a satirist by inclination. His work is biting, with an artistic style that mirrors the discordant nature of the reality he lampoons.
Jerm recently attracted some unwelcome attention when a Twitter account @ex_post_facto (it’s not clear who is behind it) scolded the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) for their relationship with him. Jerm was accused of being a white supremacist, of promoting ‘far right’ ideas and of running a racist ‘platform’.
OUTA promptly terminated his services and issued an apology. “OUTA was not aware of this cartoonist’s affiliation/links to racist individuals or platforms. Jerm was asked to compile occasional cartoons to drive our messages in our fight against corruption. Now that this has come to our attention, we will no longer use his services.”
As we at the IRR said at the time, this was “cowardly and disgraceful”. A sad crumbling before the online remarks of persons unknown. We have a long-standing relationship with Jerm; we consulted the evidence and discussed it with him. We were satisfied that the allegations lacked merit. As we head into 2019, we are happy to have him draw for us.
Indeed, there is more at stake here than the services of a cartoonist. It says something fundamental about the state of our political culture, and of the freedom we enjoy. Satire thrives in conditions of freedom, and it is the job of satirists to prod, poke and provoke, constantly knocking the venerated off their pedestals, and to make all us look at some of our fondest assumptions anew. There is something profoundly democratic about this.
But perhaps we are tending towards an environment in which the ability to do this is falling away. This was a danger recognised two decades ago by the late legal academic Etienne Mureinik. Writing in the Mail & Guardian in 1996, he remarked that “we inhabit an environment in which the subtler forms of communication may no longer be viable. They who use wit, or irony, or metaphor, now risk being taken at face value.”
Witness the Jerm cartoon that supposedly demonstrates his racism, his supposed endorsement of “far right race and IQ theories”. It depicts a white and a black character asking why it should be taboo to discuss a link between race and IQ. “Because it might suggest that some groups of people can achieve more than others”, says one of them. To which a character off on the right – labelled ‘Asian’ – responds “… and why’s that Taboo?!?”
As it happens, Jerm had already addressed this, in a piece published online long before the twitter outrage. “The cartoon,” he said, “itself merely lampoons the unscientific idea of multiple human races. In other words, there is one human race and the differences found between humans are consequences of climate, environment, culture, and so on.”
This should have been obvious to anyone with any media or cultural literacy. Although race as a determinant of intelligence has long been discredited, discernible differences in educational attainment, income levels and so on persist – certainly in the American context where this has been most closely studied. Attempts to assign this to the consequences of past or present racism seem unconvincing when the experience of Asians is factored in. Despite having little political power, being numerical minorities and having historically often been victims of racism themselves, Americans of Asian extraction perform disproportionately well in that society. This is a well-remarked upon phenomenon – and lately one central to controversies around racially differentiated university admission requirements in that country.
There is no small irony that while Jerm is pilloried for holding opinions that he does not, race and supposed racial attributes have become central to the worldview of many ‘progressive’ thinkers. Ayesha Fakie, head of Sustained Dialogues at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, damned Braai Day (the alter ego of Heritage Day) for its supposed capture by white people and ‘whiteness’. The ‘white’ presence in history has been a venal and destructive one, she wrote, and so it remains today. Writer Haji Mohamed Dawjee recently commented that white people have “an inherent, biological entitlement to dominance”. Racial biological determinism? Surely we’ve heard that before, and not in a context one would like to repeat. There is no indication that any of this was in jest.
OUTA’s own Makhosi Khoza ventured into the same racial territory by disparaging Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane’s ‘blackness’. Apparently drinking umqombothi wasn’t an appropriate expression of the idea. She had better ones: “one of the earliest Ethiopian philosophers, Zera Yacob & Amilcar Cabral, a deep thinker living ahead of his time.” (To her credit, she later apologised for this.)
This is important, not because it suggests double standards (though it does), but because it shows the desperate need to engage and debate. Some appalling ideas have become almost respectable again, adapted, repurposed and relabelled progressive. We need more discussion, more interrogation, and the ability to appreciate subtlety and nuance. Satire, properly deployed, is an excellent and necessary tool for a free and democratic society – a necessary antidote to the prostration before the grim, granite, sacrifice-hungry graven images that ideological high priests demand. Jerm again: “a topic being taboo is quite a good reason to poke fun at it.”
Otherwise, we as a society risk a fate far worse than ridicule.
* Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers who agree with what they have read are invited to join the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).