For more than three decades, Mogorosi Motshumi has drawn comics, cartoons and illustrations for an array of South African newspaper and legendary literary magazines; survived solitary confinement under the apartheid regime; pushed against prejudiced editors; and lived through the transition from pre- to post-apartheid cartooning. He continues to create works that are playful, powerful and accessible, and that capture the extraordinary in the ordinary. In conversation with Graeme Arendse, Motshumi recalls the past, the present and the future of the struggle in comic form.
Graeme Arendse: Where and when did you first encounter comics?
Mogorosi Motshumi: I’ve been reading comics for as long as I can remember and all kinds too. When I was seven or eight years old I’d lap up photo comics like The Spear and Mark Condor. Later, I read Harvey Comics (Casper and Hot Stuff), then I graduated to Marvel Comics (Spiderman and Daredevil) and British comics (Hotshot Hamish, Nipper, Roy of the Rovers). I liked copying the characters and I guess my interest in drawing stemmed from that, especially drawing cartoons. I haven’t stopped drawing since. The first cartoon I had published was for The Friend newspaper in Bloemfontein in 1977. This was after a freelance reporter from the paper had done an interview with me and the sub editor decided he needed a cartoonist for the “township edition” of the paper.
GA: The “township edition”?
MM: The Friend was part of the Argus Group, a provincial paper distributed in the Free State and Lesotho. Like most papers that time, The Friend had different editions for different races. I worked for The Friend “Special”, which was aimed at black readers. There were no permanent black journalists at the paper, only freelancers. News coverage centred mostly on civic matters and crime. I, too, was expected to do cartoons on our local councillors and sports. National issues were supposed to be handled by white cartoonists, like John Jackson. I mostly ignored this unwritten rule and dealt with subjects I liked. I got to pay for this when I found myself in a long queue to change a cheque for R5 at Standard Bank because my cartoons had not been used. Anyway I left and worked as a court interpreter for a while before the readers pestered the brass demanding to know my whereabouts and I was eventually called back.
GA: In 1980 you were imprisoned in solitary confinement. What led to your arrest and how did you survive behind bars?
MM: I had formed a cultural group called Malimu with people like the late poet Benny Morake and my wife-to-be Jeanette Tshikare, and we went around the country reciting poetry. I was also contributing cartoons and poems to Staffrider and Wietie mags and my work for The Friend was becoming more political. All the above led to the Special Branch keeping tabs on me. Then, in April 1980, I went to Lesotho on an invitation from an exiled Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) cadre (now ANC convert), Isaac Moroe. I came back with a paper bag full of ANC pamphlets, which I stashed at home before travelling to Pretoria where Morake and I recited poetry with groups like Allah Poets. I was arrested on the day of my return.
In detention I used tufts of wool from the “donkey” blankets to fashion soccer balls which I dribbled around. They kept disintegrating. Then after a few days I found a spider which I kept as a pet and friend for the duration of my stay. I also had a few hours’ break from confinement when I lied to my interrogators that I was ready to make a statement in front of the magistrate. They took me to one and instead I demanded a lawyer. The magistrate turned me down and I was taken back to my cell by very angry Special Branchers. After my release I went back to The Friend, but my cartoons were no longer wanted. I went to Jo’burg and eventually found work as an editorial cartoonist at The Voice newspaper where I was given more editorial freedom.
GA: How did your new-found freedom at The Voice and living in Jo’burg change your work?
MM: I drew an editorial cartoon for The Voice and also produced a political comic strip called “Motshumi’s Country”, as well as a weekly serial comic called “In the Ghetto”. I could suddenly comment on any current subject without in-house censorship. I was also meeting other comic artists who were active at the time – Mzwakhe Nhlabatsi, Percy Sedumedi and Andy Mason. Percy was a wonderful free spirit with a great technique. Andy and I actually collaborated on a comic character I created when I went to work for Learn and Teach magazine. Other artists who were active were BCM activists like Fikile Magadlela, Matsemela Manaka, Nape Motana and a fine pencil artist, Mpikayipheli Figlan. We illustrated short stories and poems of writers like Don Mattera, Mothobi Mutloatse and Njabulo Ndebele, among others.
GA: After the end of apartheid much of the cultural activity that accompanied the struggle dissipated…
MM: That’s right. Some of the casualties included what was known as the alternative media. I think there was the mutual belief among both funders and activists that certain objectives had been achieved and that the road to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow had been cleared. There was so much hope for, and anticipation of, new beginnings. Suddenly there were no publications like Learn and Teach and Upbeat and Staffrider and New Nation. I ended up doing sports cartoons for City Press and Daily Sun. For me, the transition from pre- to post-apartheid cartooning and general cultural activism matter is as basic as right versus wrong. Evil cannot be right simply because it wears a black face.
GA: Why is this history of black comic art in South Africa yet to be written?
MM: Back in the 1980s I attended a “Cartoonist of the Year” function in Jo’burg and mine was the only black face in a sea of white. I wondered if I was the only black cartoonist in South Africa. One could also ask why there are so few female cartoonists. I think a historical perspective can shed a little light. The media has always been in white hands. An aspiring cartoonist had to be exceptional to even have a look-in. Take Len Sak for instance. He was a white South African cartoonist but the papers he worked for were aimed at a black market, and his Sunday strips depicted township life. Was there no black cartoonist out there who could draw township life? Another question would be remuneration. Blacks and women have historically been at the low rungs of the payment ladder. And does cartooning itself pay? Most definitely not – unless you are a Rico or Zapiro. So, if you are black and can get better pay doing some clerical job, what the heck! One piece of advice I always give aspiring cartoonists is, if you’re taking it up for the money, you could be headed for a disappointment. Back in the 1990s, when Len Kalane was editor of City Press, all five cartoon features in the paper were by South African cartoonists, and three of those were black guys. If more editors had that kind of mindset, it would certainly help to level the playing field. It’s disheartening for an aspiring cartoonist to be rejected in favour of a syndicated, overseas cartoonist.
GA: Coming back to your own work, your focus tends to be on the everyday. Why is this important for you in the comic medium?
MM: One never knows where an idea for a cartoon could come from. So I’ve learned to observe the everyday happenings around me and tuck these away in my “ideas” file. The most innocent remark could become a brilliant idea for a cartoon. Here’s an illustration: I think while he was still president or soon thereafter, Mandela said that when he died and got to heaven, the first thing he’d ask for would be the nearest ANC branch. In 2012, having observed the ANC’s steady decline in morals and its disregard for its own people, which culminated in the Marikana massacre, and with Mandela’s health declining, I wondered if, on his deathbed, he believed that there was still an ANC branch in heaven. This resulted in two of the cartoons I produced. Subject matter always influences my style. If I’m doing slapstick, exaggerated movement and features will be prominent. When it comes to caricatures, there’s a balancing act done between exaggeration and realism. In the autobiographic work I’m currently doing, 360 Degrees, the early chapters are drawn in the almost cartoonish style of action. Gradually as the storyline takes on a more serious tone, so do the drawings. The hero of 360 Degrees is Oumama, my grandmother. She dies in Book 1, but her spirit carries through to the end. As for the villain, the police have been my Dr Doom or Doc Ock from day one. The first policeman I ever met, back in 1962, made my mother cry.
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