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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchPopular Geopolitics and Cartoons: Representing Power Relations, Repetition and Resistance

Popular Geopolitics and Cartoons: Representing Power Relations, Repetition and Resistance

Author: Klaus Dodds 

Affiliation: Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London

Organization/Publisher: Critical African Studies

Date/place: July 26, 2012/ UK 

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 20 



Keywords: Caricatures, Critical Geopolitics, South Africa, Resistance, Power Relations 


The relation between popular culture and politics has been garnering more attention especially in the fields of geography, international relations and political science. Interest has been growing on the ways that politics is represented in popular culture. In this paper, Klaus Dodds focuses on the popular geopolitical significance of cartoons and caricature. He does so using the work of the South African cartoonist Jonathan Zapiro, who is considered to be one of the most significant and published cartoonists in South Africa. He makes use of characteristics such as simplification, repetition, and exaggeration. Considering geopolitics as a discourse situated at a power-knowledge intersection, we can make a distinction between formal geopolitical theorized by academic commentators, practical geopolitics associated with political leaders, and popular geopolitics, which involves the construction, dissemination, and debate of representations and practices related to issues of power, ideology, and identity. 


Although cartoons are a different media form, from what we are used to in televisions and shows, popular geopolitics attempts to highlight a number of important themes. It can be argued that these geographical representations and understandings of world politics are important because they can be viewed as part of peoples everyday life. A key component in the expression of popular geopolitics is popular culture. Both presidents and political leaders have used popular media to send a message to the public and be able to communicate with it. The significance of having an audience can be highlighted by the interest in popular sources of expression. We might suppose that popular geopolitics could shine a light on political actors such as governments and the military, and it could help explain why they often collaborate with media and culture industries. An example of such collaboration is the cooperation of the US military and the video game industry for instance. 


In respect to examining and challenging political images, cartoons are underused in research. However, as of recently, academics have been studying cartoons and caricaturescreative perseverance and political importance. Caricaturists share more than just their artistic talents. Cartoonists have received both admiration and intimidation from people all around the world because they and others have vilified and made fun of the wealthy and powerful. And many incidents can show us the importance and influence that cartoons have on the political and international sphere. For instance, a bill leak cartoon published in an Australian newspaper in April 2006 led to a diplomatic breach in relations between Australia and Indonesia. Another example that the author mentions was that of the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali who was killed in July 1987 due to his harsh criticism of not only Israel but also Palestinian and Arabic political figures as well as regional political culture. Lastly, many people have heard about the controversy brought up by the publication of the 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. 


All these examples serve as a reminder of how cartoons and cartoonists ought to be viewed as socially and politically ingrained in ways that go beyond a specific nation-state and culture. One of the most effective tools in the journalist’s arsenal for revealing a certain form of reality is the political cartoon. It can be used to accuse, encourage, dispute, express opinion, and give the reader room to think about something from a different perspective. Taking cartoons seriously contributes to a larger endeavor that examines the relationship between power, representation, and audiences while also highlighting the significance of the popular culture dimension to politics. This paper encourages the reader to ponder the role and influence that cartoons have in the critical scheme. Dodds mentions two main distinguishing characteristics about cartoons. First, their endurance and lasting character as a visual form, and second, their ability to elicit a variety of responses, from delight and laughter to offense and violence. Because they frequently receive no more than a superficial glance in a newspaper or magazine, cartons are all the more exceptional. They have to accomplish a lot of things in order to work.” They need to trigger some kind of feeling or emotion into the reader. According to Peter Duus, political cartoons show a part of political culture that is absent from speeches and newspaper editorials. They give people access to “everyday” political reactions that public opinion polls are unable to measure. Thus, cartoons make up a massive library that documents both the ups and downs of political sentiments as well as fundamental developments in political consciousness. 


In his cartoons about the Yugoslav Crisis of the 1990s, Steve Bell depicted Bosnia in a way that highlighted how leaders in Europe and the United States were using geopolitical self-interest and situated ignorance to absolve themselves of moral responsibility for the violence that was taking place within Europe. Bell used several of his cartoons to examine how, despite Britain and the European Union’s proximity to Bosnia in terms of culture and society, a sense of “irresponsibility” was being expressed. Bell’s cartoons did not mean to make the reader laugh or be amused; they meant to incite outrage and contempt. Furthermore, amid the Danish cartoons controversy in 2005, the editor asserted that the cartoons were meant to draw attention to topics like self-censorship and the role of criticizing Islam. The cartoons were seen as extremely disrespectful and representative of larger disparities and injustices affecting minority populations in Denmark by Danish Muslim organizations. The cartoons sparked widespread condemnation worldwide and protests followed across the Islamic and Middle Eastern worlds as a result. For some academic commentators, the controversy served as a timely reminder that cartoons can be and are understood and represented in various ways and that audiences may very well be “moved” in ways not expected by those who published them in the first place. Likewise, it also served to shine the spotlight on the globalization of communications.


Cartoons depend on some basic elements as a visual form, including condensing, repetition, dramatization, exaggeration, and the caricature of prominent figures. Cartoons can and do employ condensation to reduce complexity to a basic topic or object, which in turn can become even more powerful if repeated. This includes reducing a political figure or even an entire nation to a single theme or object. Cartoons can play up dramatic elements to incite readers, albeit many cartoonists use exaggeration to skew readers’ perceptions of an event. Political figures are frequently made fun of through caricatures. The cartoon functions primarily as a visual medium that is relatively inexpensive to produce and simple to spread in the era of the internet. Because of these general qualities, political cartoons in particular have the ability to inform, persuade, and appeal to a shared audience or communitys understanding, in order to transmit a specific interpretation and desire for action. While cartoons are perceived by readers to be humorous renderings of true events, as Greenberg discovered in his study of Canadian cartoons, they nonetheless drew from the bank of public information that was readily available and reproduced a common sense perspective of the world. The issue is that this common sense point of view will probably only appeal to a certain readership. As the uproar over the Danish cartoons showed. This demonstrates how certain cultural forms, like cartoons, may elicit quite varied interpretations and responses. Michael Billig refers to the worldwide demonstrations and acts of violence that followed the Danish controversy as an instance of unlaughter,” a show of not laughing when laughter would normally be anticipated, desired, or required. This makes it unusual and socially meaningful, and it will undoubtedly sharpen the differences between people who find something humorous and those who do not. Which later may result in legal action being taken against cartoonists and the media outlets who publish their work, or the fear of violence and harassment.


The history and geographical contexts of cartoons have varied. However, it is apparent that dominant political cultures matter since, generally speaking, it is in liberal democratic cultures that cartoonists have the freedom to produce works that make fun of and mock political leaders. James Scott talks about using caricature as a form of resistance and speaking back to authority. The development of a resistance culture that may one day be able to serve as a catalyst for larger, more overtly oppositional liberation movements depends heavily on the weapons of the weak. These weapons are important because they not only change people’s lives but also help to build a culture of resistance. Cartoons have the potential to engage audiences, including political elites, by conveying a variety of meanings.


One of the most well-known cartoonists in South Africa, Jonathan Zapiro, who actively participated in the United Democratic Front, an anti-apartheid movement, in the 1980s, and his political history has influenced his scathing visual analyses of South Africa after apartheid. His work has been publicly acknowledged through awards and has been featured in a number of South African media. Particularly after Mandela, Zapiro’s efforts in South Africa after apartheid have drawn criticism. According to Klaus Dodds, this could be the case for two main reasons. First, the lasting effects of the apartheid era have had a significant impact on South Africa’s public culture and media. According to Clive Barnett’s documentation of these public discussions, the degree to which the post-apartheid media is viewed as having undergone a transformation, depends on whether the media is viewed as having a role in upholding the legitimacy of a still delicate democracy or as having a role in critically scrutinizing the actions of the state to a degree that was previously made impossible by authoritarian restrictions. 


Second, during a period of several governmental scandals and general discontent, Zapiro’s cartoons were increasingly divisive. For instance, in the middle of the 1990s, Zapiro generally portrayed Nelson Mandela with respect for both him as a person and the prevailing atmosphere of peace and healing. This slightly changed during the Mbeki administration, when service delivery and South Africa’s position as a regional power received more attention. As the artist himself has noted, Zapiros portrayals of Mbeki and the ANC leadership grew more critical and largely reflect his own personal dissatisfaction with the accomplishments of the government. Therefore, the state of civil society in the post-apartheid era and how sequential ANC governments under Mandela, Mbeki, and Zuma encourage a genuinely critical dialogue have been allied to any concern over media ownership and educational publishing. Cartoons by Zapiro have allegedly interfered with this public atmosphere due to their massive distribution. He did this by mocking the dishonesty and hypocrisy of powerful politicians, particularly those who are members of the African National Congress.


Zapiro has focused his most critical attention on the flaws of Jacob Zuma. Noteworthy to mention are his drawings that appeared in the Sunday Times in 2010. In the cartoon, Jacob Zuma is portrayed along Lady Justice while she is being held down by the head of the Youth League, and the secretaries general of the ANC, SACP, and COSATU. In the image, Gwede Mantashe, the secretary general of the ANC, is heard screaming, “Go for it, Boss,” as Zuma prepares to “rape” Lady Justice. The cartoon and the cartoonist, who was accused of being racist, drew an outraged response. According to reports, Zapiro said that this animation had layers and the main issue was that Zuma was disobeying the letter and spirit of the Constitution and the legal system. That offense was represented as a rape. However, the ability of Zapiro’s cartoons to engage in the public and raise issues regarding the nature of public life in South Africa after apartheid is what the author is mainly concerned about. The cartoon examines Zuma’s public opinion on women and the topic of rape as well as public manifestations of Zulu culture. It continues to serve as a strong reminder of how repetition and caricature can restrain the excess of South Africa’s political elites while still having the potential to solidify their positions of power. Zapiro has regularly criticized the flaws of South African political leaders in public, but he has also made scathing remarks on regional problems like the continuing situation in Zimbabwe. Therefore, Zapiro’s caricatures’ international involvement with his portfolio is one of their distinguishing features. Zapiro stirs up national discussions not only in South Africa but also in other parts of southern Africa, Europe, North America, and the Middle East. By concentrating on public figures, a highly personalized picture of power and authority is solidified. His left-leaning political critique reveals the flaws and hypocrisies of governments and the “ruling classes” as a whole. He continually elicits a variety of responses and emotions through his art. Some of Zuma’s followers believed that Zapiro’s work amounted to nothing less of treason, and their responses to the president’s conduct complaints reveal interesting rifts within South Africa over the appropriate scope of criticism. And despite these criticisms, Zapiro’s cartoons are frequently used in South Africa’s “blogosphere.” His work has presented a very compelling vantage point from which to evaluate South Africa’s transition from white minority rule to a democratic government. Opposite narratives and practices can be found in various places and take diverse forms. By doing this. The works of Zapiro also serve as a reminder of how South Africa’s political geography has changed over time as a democratic nation and a regional power.


Cartoons convey a variety of intricate and complex ideas. They lack the luxury of thousands of words to explain their claims because of their general shape. The so-called boundary-heightened humour and the ways that laughing and unlaughter commonly reflect power dynamics between the joker and the audience have been discussed by Moira Smith in her examination of the Danish carbon problem. Thus, there are three themes that need further reflection. First, more research needs to be done on how comedy and caricature are interpreted. The latter rarely goes without repercussions, regardless of geography. What can be deemed as humorous or not is always a political issue. For instance, US comedian Stephen Colbert’s 2006 White House Correspondence Dinner performance, in which he mocked President Bush and his “War on Terror,” was hailed by opponents of the administration and denounced as rude by supporters of the Republican President. Second, since study on cartoons frequently only focuses on the newspapers and magazines in which the work was published, it is important to include new media sources like social networking sites. Facebook and other social media sites frequently republish Zapiro’s cartoons. And more people are engaging with his drawings via various websites all over the world. Because many readers do not necessarily engage with his work through South African newspapers, this type of international involvement is crucial. The visual nature of cartoons and his use of English, as many have pointed out, means that his audience is much bigger than specific newspaper-reading communities in South Africa. Finally, a broader engagement with cartoons, humor, and satire outside the sphere of Euro-American cartoonists and performers might help popular geopolitical studies of cartoons.

By:  Sara El Souhagy, CIGA Research Intern 



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