End of the Rainbow

Ed.'s note: What follows is a selection from Colin Liddell's interview with South African cartoonist Anton Kannemeyer, which appears in the latest edition of Quarterly Review.  (QR subscriptions can be ordered here.)

Anton Kannemeyer is a print artist and cartoonist whose work, since the early 1990s, has commented on the racial and political tensions of Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa. Starting from a liberal position, detesting the Apartheid State, rejecting his Boer heritage, and welcoming the “New South Africa,” his art has gradually evolved into something darker and more complex as disturbing trends become increasingly evident in the so-called “Rainbow Nation.”

Colin Liddel: I'd like to ask about the “Alphabet Series.” With its deadpan humour, it's one of the things you're best known for. Some of the pieces, like "N is for Nightmare" (house with decapitation), remind me of Hergé’s Tintin cartoons -- nice, clean draughtsmanship and stereotypical Blacks. Why did you choose this Tintin-esque style?

Anton Kannemeyer: The stylistic reference to Hergé’s Tintin can be traced back to my “Bitterkomix” work -- I started using it when I made comics of myself at a very young age. At the time (as a young child before I turned 12) Tintin was the only comic I knew, and the style just seemed perfect to open that window back into (especially) my pre-pubescent years. I used the clarity of his style, but added a dark shadow-like atmosphere which seemed quite truthful to me, quite depressing. The use of the stereotypical Black has several functions, one being that I did see all black people (who I didn't know) at that age as looking the same. In the case of the "N is for Nightmare" series (there are in fact seven pieces in the series, part of the "bigger" Alphabet series), I wanted to accentuate this fear of hordes of faceless "Blacks" attacking White dwellings (and maybe affluent Black houses) – always situated in typical South African middle class suburbs.

CL: The way you exaggerate this fear in these cartoons feels satirical, as if you are mocking it as ridiculous and out of proportion. But isn't fear, by its very nature an exaggerated state? Also, in view of the disparities in wealth and the social and racial divisions in South Africa, and the experience of much of late 20th century Africa – from the Mau Mau, the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, the massacres in the Belgian Congo, the campaigns against the White farmers in Zimbabwe, and of course the genocide in Rwanda, etc., etc., might not these fears of "faceless mobs" be completely understandable?

AK: Sure, these fears are perfectly grounded. In fact, we had a series of very violent break-ins in the street where I live a year ago: these gangs would simply smash the front door in and steal as much as they can before the armed response would reply. And in both cases (in our street) the families were held at gunpoint until the guys left. I was very afraid of waking up in the middle of the night with a front door being smashed down. But I think one problem is that white people think they're the only victims in South Africa (oh God they feel really sorry for themselves). The other thing has to do with ownership and entitlement: many white people think they've worked really hard for what they've got and that it's really unfair that they're being victimized. And yes, it's a complex issue: in a "normal" first world country the government will protect you – in South Africa (when white people complain – especially about "service delivery") you're branded a racist. It's a very interesting time (but it has been since I started studying). I made a painting recently of a white woman about to be raped by four Black guys; she shouts at her husband: "These historically disadvantaged men want to rape me!" Now once again there are real situations like this out there – but the issue I'm addressing is something else though. I use this fear to address something else. Regarding this, I found an excellent quote by Tony Hoagland: "To really get at the subject of race, chances are, is going to require some unattractive, tricky self-expression, something adequate to the paradoxical complexities of privilege, shame, and resentment. To speak in a voice equal to reality in this case will mean the loss of observer-immunity status, will mean admitting that one is not on the sidelines of our racial realities, but actually in the tangled middle of them. Nobody is going to look good." (from Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft, 2006.) I know that I approach the subject from a satirical perspective, but your question (a good one, by the way) tries to get behind/underneath the "visual" figure of speech.

CL: I’d like to ask you about the dramatic murder of Eugene Terre'blanche, whose death touches upon so many of the areas approached in your art. Terre'blanche is the kind of patriarchal Afrikaner figure that you grew up despising. How do you feel about his death? Any theories or views?

AK: I don't have much sympathy with Terre'blanche - he was a violent man and yes, pretty much the embodiment of everything I despised as a kid and a young grown-up (and, I guess, a "proper grown-up"). I do think the murder was political in nature (even though the media says it was about money) and a result of Julius Malema's endorsement of the "Kill the Boer" song. What is interesting now is that we had similar problems in 1994: Blacks were shouting "one settler, one bullet" and more or less exactly the same angst and issues regarding race are still with us. A lot of people said we had come a long way since Apartheid, but the exact same issues are still the most explosive today. I find it extremely interesting that someone like Malema, who is clearly uneducated and one of the bluntest pencils on the political landscape, can have such a major political impact in South Africa. He accuses the whites for everything that's wrong in SA today, even though the ANC has now been in power for 16 years. What he's doing is very transparent, and I must say he and Zuma look more and more like copies of Amin, Mobutu and Mugabe...

CL: I always thought that Terre'blanche was the kind of joke figure that made satire pointless – a caricature of White nationalism that served to discredit the very ideas he espoused. I am thinking here of the three-legged swastika, military fatigues, and even his name which invokes "eugenics" and "white land." Did he make your job as a satirist hard by existing as a satire on himself? And isn't this also true of many of the other figures in the South African political landscape?

AK: You're right: it's difficult to satirise him. Even his actual death is satirical – it's bizarre. He's my work come to life, but probably better than I could have executed. At the moment he and Malema are the two extremes on the SA political landscape: the irony is that both of them represent(ed) far right extremism.

CL: The way he died is evocative of the fears that your art often touches on. Is it about unresolved issues of economic inequality (as opposed to economic justice, which is a different issue), or a nebulous mood of racial hatred that can easily find a focus?

AK: Apparently a white Boer is killed every 18 hours in South Africa. These statistics are not released by the police, but by the action groups set up by farmers themselves. I must say, now that the ANC has shown us where they're heading, now that even the secretary-general of the Communist party is driving a million Rand Mercedes Benz, I'm very worried about the future of South Africa. Also, I'm quite surprised by the "nebulous" racial hatred in SA – I know I'm politically naive, but it slowly dawned on me (in the last 5 years or so) just exactly how racist people still are. Even Mbeki is a racist – he was supposed to be our intellectual leader, you know, an enlightened leftie. You were talking about "post-racism": maybe that's the privilege of the upper middle classes and the rich. Especially the privilege of those in white countries. South Africa was supposed to be this country where a miracle happened - I must say there are so many white liberals who are so disillusioned with the ANC, it's in fact rather funny. So: no, I do not see Terre’blanche's death as an isolated incident, and yes, it's about race and class: and I do not know, with the current education system in South Africa (a senior Black professor at UCT said recently that education is now worse for Blacks than what it was under the Apartheid regime), where this will end.

CL: Are you planning any artistic response to this incident?

AK: I hope so – I don't force anything, hopefully a lateral solution will arrive soon. I don't think like a political cartoonist, and I do not do this kind of work on a deadline.