Cape Town--121028-Cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro in his studio, after hearing that Jacob Zuma has effectively dropped the charges against him. Reporter Jason Felix. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

Johannesburg - A public war of words has erupted between Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, and President Jacob Zuma’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj, with the latter labelling as “racist” a cartoon in which Shapiro depicted President Jacob Zuma as being about to rape “Lady Justice”.

On Monday, Maharaj invited the cartoonist to a face-to-face and public debate as the two were interviewed separately on two radio stations following Zuma’s decision to withdraw a defamation case against the cartoonist and after the Presidency said the cartoon was a product of “ingrained prejudices” about African male sexuality.

On Sunday, the Presidency said in a statement that Shapiro and the Sunday Times, which published the controversial cartoon, had wanted to perpetuate the image of Zuma as “a sexual deviant”, despite his acquittal on rape charges in 2006.

It said “deeply ingrained prejudices regarding not only the president, but which extend[ed] to views about African males and sexual mores” lay at the heart of the cartoon’s publication.

Shapiro rejected the accusations, dismissing them as nothing but a “red herring” and saying his legal team had intended to use the court to disprove such claims.

“This is the old, tired spin [that Zuma and his allies] used four years ago,” he said.

“It’s a cheap trick to withdraw the case unconditionally and all the charges, and then to trot out this old red herring.”

Shapiro said the rape of Lady Justice was an obvious metaphor and unequivocally not about Zuma’s personal history, including the rape charges he faced in 2005.

“It’s about his bullying and threatening of the judiciary. He did it to get into power, and he’s done it since,” he said.

However, he acknowledged the sensitivities about the way in which black male sexuality had been negatively characterised historically, as well as the obvious inferences the cartoon might elicit about Zuma’s well-publicised personal life.

He said he had deliberately drawn the cartoon so that it was “not salacious”, and so that it would not demean women.

“I’m aware of the connotation. People could make that link, but is that my fault?”

On Monday, speaking to Independent Newspapers, Maharaj acknowledged Shapiro’s explanation, adding he was open to discussing the issues with him.

“Let’s look at [the cartoon] through the multicultural lens of South Africa… in an atmosphere where we can listen to each other and stop pretending that any one individual has the infallible answers to all our problems,” Maharaj said. “Let’s create an environment of dialogue rather than confrontation.”

The Presidency also said Zuma was withdrawing the charges to preserve a culture of freedom of expression in the country – an argument Shapiro has called “weird” and “convoluted”.

Shapiro said Maharaj believed Zuma’s legal team would have won, and therefore had decided to allow the cartoon to go unchallenged as a gesture in “granting something to freedom of expression”.

He said Maharaj was repeatedly in a position of having to “defend all sorts of indefensible things”, but that he had “never heard such convoluted [arguments]”.

“I’m adamant the central metaphor could be used for any politician anywhere.”

Shapiro said he and his legal team had consulted widely, and had found “a number of drawings” that were similar.

His cartoon showed Lady Justice “about to be raped”, whereas in Europe there were cartoons that depicted then-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi “actually raping” a woman.

“What Mac Maharaj and Jacob Zuma are doing is exploiting a very real sense of hurt – and I think they did this quite deliberately,” he said.

Shapiro said the invitation to debate was “intriguing”, but that he would have to think about it.

“I’m never one to shy away from debate, but in this context we have won a total victory [with the withdrawal of charges] and they’re trying to score points now,” he said.

He said he was not yet rejecting the offer, but would wait to hear a more specific proposal from Maharaj.

He repeated that his intention had been for the cartoon to make a “very strong political point about [Zuma’s] relation to the judiciary, specifically with regard to his corruption charges”.

It had not been a comment on Zuma’s culture or personal life, Shapiro added.

Political Bureau